by Kristen B.
Novellas have gained in popularity recently, and I suspect it’s because you get the satisfaction of a complete story without committing to a doorstop of a book. This holds particularly true in the speculative fiction genre, where 500+ page tomes are the norm. Nghi Vo is a master of this short form.
She has crafted a series of stories that follow cleric Chih of the Singing Hills Monastery as they travel, collecting stories as they go. Singing Hills specializes in history and folklore. The most reliable way Chih can elicit a story from someone happens when they tell one version of a tale. Their listener often says something to the effect of, “that’s not how I heard it,” and proceeds with the “correct” version. Chih is accompanied by a talking hoopoe bird with perfect recall named Almost Brilliant – but their interactions are entirely so. You can enjoy three installments to date, with a fourth coming this fall.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune (which won Hugo and Locus awards for best novella) is an amazing story of empire and ambition, with important details found in what is omitted as much as in what is overt. Chih visits a mostly abandoned country estate, where the only person living there happens to be the maidservant (and lover) of the former empress. She certainly has a story to tell our Singing Hills cleric! It’s one well worth the price of mild disorientation as you put the pieces of a major event together with Chih. Vo recounts this seemingly unimportant woman’s story in elegant, poetic language and imagery.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain may offer the best example of survival by asking for the corrected version of a story. As long as Chih keeps the tigers talking, they stay (mostly) safe until an expected contingent of mammoths can arrive to scare the hunters away. Tigers, you see, are proud creatures, clearly superior to humans. Just ask them. They also fall in love and prey to tricky foxes. The glory of this installment comes from understanding tigers as people – who are also hungry animals who regard Chih as a snack. It’s a wonderful story about relationships, empire, and living up (or down) to expectations.
Into the Riverlands brings Chih into the orbit of a group of travelers. This time they are in the riverlands, a delta area full of braided streams and marshlands where many rival martial arts masters co-exist – sometimes peacefully, often not. Here, Almost Brilliant shines by having a familiarity with the legendary personalities and combat styles involved. Again, beginning a story often elicits other versions and corrections. This installment offers more adventure, starting with the initial brawl in a tavern and ending with a spectacular battle. Many clues and inferences come together for an entirely satisfying conclusion.
I can’t wait to see where Chih and Almost Brilliant go next. Several colorful threads stitch these stories together: a non-Western milieu in the fantastical empire of Ahn; mostly humble, working-class protagonists, who nonetheless make a difference in their world; and cheerful acceptance of a generally queer outlook on the world. Beyond Chih’s non-binary identity, the books celebrate that love comes in many forms. We must all be true to our hearts, which is not a bad theme for some light-hearted books.
Kristen B. is a devoted bookworm lucky enough to work as the graphic designer for HCLS. She likes to read, stitch, dance, and watch baseball in season (but not all at the same time).