The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger came down the Mountain – just the name of these books was enough to make me want to dive deep into them, albeit it was a short dive since both the books are about 120 pages long. After seeing the covers, the deal was sealed and what a visual treat these books have been.
What I instantly adored about Nghi Vo is her brevity. I’m someone who hates to explain things in her prose and I was so glad that Nghi Vo does not overexplain. Her words are chosen carefully and you’re not given the time or space to breathe because there is no fluff here.
Which is why I think she has added the words ‘do you understand’ in the Empress before launching into a tale. It’s almost like she’s saying are you here, are you paying attention because I’m not going to repeat myself.
Both the books involve Chih, a cleric whose job is to write down stories, and to update those that already exist. Chih follows the pronoun they/them and it was a novel experience not having an image in my head of what they could potentially look like. There were no aquiline noses or shapely breasts. It’s just Chih and Almost Brilliant, a hoopoe, who adds all the sass she can in the Empress. She’s sadly missing from the second book.
The Empress follows the story of In-yo, a royal who has been discarded by her husband because she had done her duty. Sample these words said right in the beginning about In-yo:
There never was a dress like this one again. There never could be. It is beautiful, but every stitch bites into her history, the deaths she left behind her, and the home she could not turn to.
But In-yo is not your regular protagonist as Chih soon discovers. Girls who are troublesome, or need to be get rid off for a time are sent to where In-yo lives in her glorified prison. She has been, for all intents and purposes, side-lined from her own story. But she rallies the girls around herself and as the story unfolds for both Chih and you, the cleric’s words are almost prophetic:
Learning how to wait for a story rather than chasing after it and soon enough, it came to them.
While the Empress is about In-yo and the power of women, the Tiger is about how histories change depending on who is narrating the story. It’s a sapphic love story between a scholar and a tiger. While Chih knows the story from the scholar’s perspective – so obviously it is the scholar that tames the tiger – the tigers that have come down from the mountain are eagerly educating Chih about the “right” story – where it is the tiger who seduces the scholar.
Throughout the Tiger, Chih has to ensure they keep the tigers happy because if the tigers decide that enough is enough, they would simply eat Chih and be done with it.
There is a delicious tension of will the tigers eat Chih or will Chih be able to save themselves and their companions even as the love story of the scholar and the tiger unfolds. At one point the scholar is trying to get the tiger to do something for her and when the tiger demands a price, she narrates poems. Here’s a taste:
Now your departure crashes like thunder, and the timbers of the house shake with the force of the space you left behind.
How that tension between Chih and the tigers dissolve I’m going to let you find out. I only say, in very few words, Nghi Vo creates such visual imagery that you won’t want the books to end. If there’s one takeaway from both the books, it is: while men are granted power, women make their own power.
This post is a part of Blogchatter Half Marathon.