A young royal from the far north, is sent south for a political marriage in an empire reminiscent of imperial China. Her brothers are dead, her armies and their war mammoths long defeated and caged behind their borders. Alone and sometimes reviled, she must choose her allies carefully.
Rabbit, a handmaiden, sold by her parents to the palace for the lack of five baskets of dye, befriends the emperor’s lonely new wife and gets more than she bargained for.
At once feminist high fantasy and an indictment of monarchy, this evocative debut follows the rise of the empress In-yo, who has few resources and fewer friends. She’s a northern daughter in a mage-made summer exile, but she will bend history to her will and bring down her enemies, piece by piece
Warnings: forced sterilization, death of loved ones
This novella packs one hell of a story in its package, having a story about an exiled empress coming back for revenge, unfolding slowly through her handmaiden’s recounting of her story. The story is being told after the empress’ demise, to a cleric, Chih, whose job it is to go and record events, and the choice of the storyteller and listener for the tale itself is an interesting thing. Chih comes from Singing Hills, an abbey where magical hoopoe birds keep precise records, and they travel to the place where the Empress of Salt and Fortune, In-yo had lived in exile for six years, a place on the edge of a magical lake, and where now her elderly handmaiden, Rabbit, still resides.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune belongs to all her subjects, and she was romantic and terrible and glamorous and sometimes all three at once.
Rabbit has a collection of objects related to the Empress, and object by object, the story unfurls in its own winding way, starting with the Empress’ stay in the palace, where she first met Rabbit and chose her as a confidant, and then moves on to when the Empress was exiled after delivering an heir, and the destruction of her homeland. As a foreign empress, she is subject to suspicion, especially by the Minister of the Left, and so her stay in exile has her kept in imperial comfort with a rotating staff of ladies, and Rabbit. However, In-yo cunningly uses his and the court’s underestimation of her abilities and ridicule of her beliefs to slowly gather allies, communicate with her northern kingdom through code, such that she can rise up against her husband and conquer his southern kingdom. All along, Rabbit interjects with how In-yo was caring despite her royal pedigree, and how the women in the house support each other.
One drunken evening, many years on, In-yo would say that the war was won by silenced and nameless women, and it would be hard to argue with her.
There is mention of magic, and it is a part of the world-building but it is used more in a symbolic sense later on. There are also more characters than just Rabbit or In-yo in the story, but it would take too long to get into them. The construction of the world leaves most of the work to the reader’s imagination, to be honest, and says a lot more in subtext than outright. It also makes for a slightly confusing reading experience, at least in the start, where you are figuring out whether certain characters would be significant, or a detail would point to something bigger. Also, we don’t get a lot of time for characterization here, and it mostly jumps forward in time for much of the story, so piecing together events or the development of a certain character’s relationships sometimes come as a surprise. For its length, though, it does a fantastic job telling a woman’s story, as she works against everything opposing her, and also keeps her a mystery as a character by having someone else tell her story, and even has the teller have her story entwined in hers. It is an immensely engaging and satisfying read, especially towards the end, as Rabbit reveals the twist, and I can’t help but wish it was a full-fledged novel instead of just a novella, because dammit I want more details!
Is it diverse? non-binary protagonist, queer major character; Chinese-inspired fantasy setting; by Asian author
Received an advance reader copy in exchange for a fair review from TOR, via Netgalley.
Releases on March 24, 2020