Well, here is a discovery. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a novella by Nghi Vo. It is set in a fantasy world, but I’m going to have to use real-world analogies to give you the impression of it. I may well mess up horribly, for which I apologise in advance.
The action is set in the Empire of Anh, which is kind of China-like. The story is about the late Empress, In-yo, who hails from somewhere to the north where it is always cold and people fish for seals at ice-holes. So maybe we are talking about far-eastern China and southern Siberia. In-yo appears to have been a trophy bride for the late Emperor. She is recently dead, and her daughter has inherited the throne. That’s the political background.
The main character is Chih, a cleric from the order of the Singing Hills. Clerics appear to forsake gender when they join an order. Chih is accompanied by a talking hoopoe called Almost Brilliant. The hoopoe is a neixin, which is a Chinese word that the internet variously tells me might mean “innermost being” or “psychological drama”. The order of the Singing Hills specialises in collecting and recording history.
Chih and Almost Brilliant have journeyed to a place called Lake Scarlet, which has been “taken off every map and effectively disappeared by a highly dedicated and skilled imperial sorcerer.” There they meet an old woman called Rabbit who was once a trusted servant of the late Empress. In a series of short chapters, Rabbit tells Chih the story of her life, and in doing so reveals the secret history of the life of In-yo.
I can’t tell you much more about the plot, but I will say that there is some splendidly cunning espionage involved. The sort of thing that Francis Lymond would have been happy to have devised. By the end of the story, Chih will be in possession of a secret that could cost them their life.
I really loved this book, and I’m delighted to see that there will be more stories set in the same world.
Title: The Empress of Salt and Fortune
By: Nghi Vo