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The Empress of Salt and Fortune    by Nghi Vo order for
Empress of Salt and Fortune
by Nghi Vo
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2020 (2020)
Softcover, e-Book
* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Nghi Vo's The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a 128 page historical fantasy novella, tightly written and immensely satisfying. It has two heroines, the first being the empress In-yo herself and the second her servant and friend Rabbit. The story is set in a realm reminiscent of Imperial China, and moves back and forth in time, gradually revealing its secrets.

After her father and brothers are defeated and killed, and their war mammoths caged, In-yo is sent south in a political marriage, bringing with her a wealth of salt, pearls and whale oil. At court, heartbroken and lonely, she is despised. 'She had a foreigner's beauty, like a language we do not know how to read.' After she gives birth to a son (the Emperor's heir from the north), she's sent into exile, but closely monitored, at Lake Scarlet. Rabbit accompanies her.

In-yo plays a long and careful game. The north sends her a box of black salt (it had been white before), a signal. She pretends to be 'mad for oracles and fortune tellers' and uses them to send and receive coded messages. Plans are made and agents recruited, including Sukai, whom Rabbit grows to love. There is danger and tragedy in what follows, and an ending that seems perfectly fitting to what went before.

All this is slowly revealed after In-yo's death, when Cleric Chih seeks knowledge of her time in exile at Lake Scarlet and finds elderly Rabbit there, where she remains contentedly in the shadows.

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