This continues my read of novellas; however, The Empress of Salt and Fortune was so richly imagined and described that it is hard to believe it is such a short piece of work. It is also remarkable that the entire story takes place at a moldering palace of exile and unfolds as interactions between a disgraced palace attendant and a cleric who is tasked with recording the history and cataloging the belongings of the place. Within this tight frame, a stunningly detailed world is built, populated with betrayal and death, love and art, subjugation and rebellion. Ultimately, Chih, the cleric, and Rabbit, the elderly servant, cycle through the events that brought on the decline and toppling of one imperial dynasty and the rise of another.
Despite the epic subject matter, Nghi Vo crafted a quiet, contemplative book. Chih digs through old items that belonged to the Empress, and certain ones elicit often cryptic stories from Rabbit that spotlight certain events in Rabbit’s life, from being sold into the Emperor’s household by her village to meeting the Empress, and so forth. These brief pearls string together into finely crafted cameos of Rabbit and the Empress. It is delightful to have the inner life of a palace attendant highlighted in this way – those many so often lost to history. These stories are often about the weak creating space for themselves or harnessing power, while beneath the notice of the powerful. They are about women striving for safety and comfort and joy and beauty in a patriarchal society and within the repressive bounds of a imperial household.
By sharply focusing on a single building and the recollections of a single actor in a turbulent time, Vo’s novella doesn’t start to stretch beyond the scope of the universe she created. The way the women slowly, slowly expand their reach is so clever and is reasonable – no magic, no deus ex machina – just hard work and managing the relationships that are available to them.