The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo


By — Danny Kistner

This quick, satisfying read was perhaps the best way to start my TBR in 2021 and more than this, one of the best pieces of literature I’ve ever read. The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a short story by Nghi Vo based loosely on imperial China whose deep, complex lore and enticing characters are wonderful in the same way that old fairytales are. 

The Premise

A story within a story, we follow a Cleric named Chih as they and a bird capable of talking and remembering everything, journey to a town at the edge of a lake that was once home to an exhilied empress. Hoping to record the history surrounding the location, they meet Rabbit, an old woman who was once a servant to this Empress of Salt and Fortune. There, Rabbit tells Chih the story of the rebellion hatched by the Empress and how a new era was birthed for their entire empire. 

This book’s subtle ability to build complex world, characters, and political intrigue in a spit-fire, addictive way that leaves a reader feeling at once sad and triumphant. It took me maybe an hour to read and over the course of that hour, I experienced a river of emotions. It is one of only a very few books I have read that remind me of the weight of history, of how great an impact even so few people can make. 

The Good

First and foremost, The Empress of Salt and Fortune must be commended for it’s worldbuilding. You are thrown directly into the action and from there, Vo is able to unfurl an entire empire’s history in only around a hundred pages. I mean this quite literally as well, every chapter reveals slowly, not only the backstory of the characters, but also politics, history, and deep-rooted conflict in regards to it all. The world in particular, though based on imperial China, is established with such efficiency that just ten pages in, you find yourself fully immersed within it. 

The characters were just as brilliantly written, much of this brilliance lending itself to Vo’s own writing style, which reflects that of fairytales and in the same way, you almost instantly feel attached. Their relationships are just as complex as the politics and story, and similarly, seem to deepen the further into the story you are. This gradual depth, alongside Chih’s own story, does add to the organic feel of the politics and as we the reader learn more, it only gives the sensation that it was the tip of the iceberg. 

The Bad

Very simply, there wasn’t any. 

Overall a 5/5