Received to review via Netgalley; publication date 24th March 2020
The Empress of Salt and Fortune is described as an “Asian period drama”, which sounds about right to me. It opens with a cleric, Chih, whose job is to document events and stories, in order that they might be remembered and understood in the future. They travel with a hoopoe, Almost Brilliant, who is a neixin. The neixin work alongside clerics, learning stories and passing them on. Chih is eager to catalogue the stories of the place where the recently deceased Empress was originally exiled from the court, prior to her rise to power. They’re lucky enough to meet Rabbit, an old woman who served the Empress before and during her exile.
The story is parcelled out in little snatches: Rabbit curates the story, presenting what she wants Chih to understand and slowly bringing them to the understanding of it. I found myself not very surprised by the reveal by the time we got to the ending, but the slow spinning out of the story worked for me. It feels very fairytale-like, with most of the characters very opaque, but the little glimpses we see are enough to flesh it out — at least enough to keep me interested through the course of the novella.
Just to note, I’m unclear whether Chih is actually non-binary rep. As far as I remember the early part of the book, Rabbit assumes they are female until she realises they’re a cleric. So it sounds more to me like a cultural thing, rather than an identity thing per se, and it isn’t really explored. It’s just a fact. There is also a brief reference to a lesbian relationship, but it’s very brief and not really very important to the story. There’s queerness woven into the story, but I didn’t feel it was particularly intended to be the centrepiece.
It feels like there’s so much potential for more stories in this world — stories about the clerics themselves, as well as the stories they discover and record. I’d be interested to read more if there ever is more, but it does also work as a self-contained story.