Reviews for the Singing Hills Cycle by Nghi Vo! I’m reviewing in the order they were published, but they are connected by place rather than plot, and can be read in any order.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Chih is a cleric of the Singing Hills Monastery who travels the world to catalog, record, and document histories. Rabbit is the former servant of the exiled empress In-Yo. As Chih catalogs the contents of Rabbit’s house, Rabbit shares with them bits of stories related to the objects they find. Chapters flip from Chih’s current perspective to vignettes of Rabbit’s life decades before, and in this piecemeal way Vo reveals the true (maybe?) history of Empress In-Yo.
I really love the organic way this story unfolds. It feels like the kind of timeless wanderings we go on when cleaning out a closet or attic or basement, and I can’t understate how challenging it must be to craft a narrative that feels so natural, and to illustrate a rich and detailed world through an assembled collection of seemingly insignificant details. Vo expertly lays out the pieces of this tale and this world, and it sometimes feels like she’s reaching through to the reader when Rabbit taunts Chih with variations of haven’t you figured it out yet? I wouldn’t call this a mystery exactly, more a puzzle, but one that we get the pleasure of watching unfold rather than having to actively participate in solving. But that is all part of the fun, isn’t it?
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
An excellent sequel to The Empress of Salt and Fortune. This second book follows Chih to a new location, in search of a new history. While Empress carried a tension inherent in state secrets, subterfuge, and royal family drama, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain begins with an adrenaline-pumping escape from a family of shapeshifting tigers. After taking shelter in a barn, Chih finds themself telling the story this time, the tale of the tiger Ho Thi Thao, to stall and distract the tigers pacing just outside the door. But this story may not be as it is recorded and as Chih knows it: Vo takes a direct hit at both the trope of the unreliable narrator and at those who feel entitled to edit and repackage the stories of marginalized communities by interjecting via the hungry tigers, who are curious about the version Chih tells even as they threaten to devour them for telling it incorrectly. Chapter by chapter, Chih and the tigers share their versions of the tale, and the tension only grows as the tigers become increasingly impatient, hungry, and frustrated.
Much like Empress, through these short but intricate novellas, Vo writes in ways that both question and celebrate the nature of storytelling itself.