The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'The Empress of Salt and Fortune' by Nghi Vo Review - Warped Factor - Words in the Key of Geek.

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The 2021 Hugo Nominees: 'The Empress of Salt and Fortune' by Nghi Vo Review

Alexander Wallace reviews another of this year's Hugo Award nominees.
Us commoners (which, realistically, just about everyone reading this review) have often had a fascination with royal courts. We tell ourselves stories of princes and princesses and courtesans and viziers in an attempt to describe the machinations of those who have traditionally ruled us. When looking at the Arab world’s caliphs, the European writer invented the cloak-and-dagger, salacious ‘harem’ filled with sultriness and deception (in reality, ‘harem’ in Arabic simply means a room reserved for the women of the household).

But it is much farther east that we shall concern ourselves with here. Now we shall discuss Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune, a fantasy novel about power, royal courts, and what drives power within royal courts.

The novel alternates between two settings, temporally and physically separated from one another. One concerns a traveler and their pet visiting a lake watched over by an aging handmaiden of the empress of the realm; empress and handmaiden knew each other when the former was but a princess. The other is the story of that empress and that handmaiden as the former navigates her way through the cutthroat politics of the imperial court.

The alternation between the two points of view creates an interesting effect where the empress is seen both very intimately and at a distance. As you go on, you will begin to see the little discrepancies between the two, making you wonder just how honest this handmaiden is being. Your traveler, Chih, is properly inquisitive for such a role, and their questioning drives much of the plot in their time-frame.

The politics of this book are ruthless; fans of Seth Dickinson’s The Traitor Baru Cormorant will certainly find something satisfying here. The plot of this novella reminded very much of one of my objections to the concept of monarchy, as well as to the concept of a ‘chosen one’ (this can be seen quite clearly in the Star Wars prequel trilogy and Avatar: the Last Airbender): this book showed me how unabashedly cruel it is to thrust greatness upon somebody without their consent. Without any choice in the matter, this empress is made to navigate the halls of power and eventually gain power over the realm.

One of the things that leapt out to me in The Empress of Salt and Fortune is how good Vo is at descriptions. In particular, there is a lake that is central to the events of the plot that has interesting phenomena occurring beneath it; Vo brings that to life with imagery I can still remember. Likewise, when the empress goes north, it is cold in a way that few writers I have read can match.

The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a book about power, and what people do with it, and what people will do to get it and keep it. It is about memory, and how the passage of time distorts it. It is a profound little book, and I look forward to what Vo will write next.

The 2021 Hugo Nominees: Reviews
'Finna' by Nino Cipri
'Ring Shout' by P. Djèlí Clark
'Upright Women Wanted' by Sarah Gailey
'Riot Baby' by Tochi Onyebuchi

Alexander Wallace is an alternate historian, reader, and writer who moderates the Alternate History Online group on Facebook and the Alternate Timelines Forum on Proboards. He writes regularly for the Sea Lion Press blog and for NeverWas magazine, and also appears regularly on the Alternate History Show with Ben Kearns. He is a member of several alternate history fora under the name 'SpanishSpy.'

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