For such short novellas, Nghi Vo sure does pack a punch. For those of you who have been with us for a while, you already know that here at Love Yo Shelf, we love, well, love. A good love story, whether it’s between lovers, friends, enemies, or even places, stays with you for a long time in the most subtle ways. The Singing Hills Cycle is no different. Both stories create such vibrant histories with truly remarkable characters who reminded me how important it is to do everything with empathy, wit, and all the strength I can muster.
Synopsis: A young royal from the far north is sent south for a political marriage. Alone and sometimes reviled, she has only her servants on her side. This evocative debut chronicles her rise to power through the eyes of her handmaiden, at once feminist high fantasy and a thrilling indictment of monarchy.
When I first started The Empress of Salt and Fortune, I must admit I was a bit confused (though, mostly because of my tendency to forget what I’ve read in synopses), but once it clicked into place, I couldn’t finish it quickly enough. The Empress of Salt and Fortune was inventive and masterfully told from the unexpected perspective of handmaiden Rabbit to cleric Chih and their sassy companion, Almost Brilliant. The significance of the recording of history takes center stage in both stories in entirely different ways. In TEOSAF, the significance lies in the act of remembering.
Accuracy above all things. You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small.
As Rabbit recalls the tale of Empress In-yo in pieces, it becomes clear that these large aspects of their lives come from and produce small, seemingly obscure meanings, and In-yo becomes living proof that meaning is made. It doesn’t exist in a vacuum, because we as people don’t exist in a vacuum. One of my favorite aspects of this story is that In-yo herself is a living memory; Rabbit’s recollection of her breathes life into every laugh, every secret code, and every order that she’s given. In every way, The Empress of Salt and Fortune was a love letter written to all the women who had been forgotten in In-yo’s story, pieces of their power being returned to them the more Chih learns.
Empress In-yo herself is truly the embodiment of strength (that being said without ever actually meeting her), and her relationship with Rabbit is one of the most quietly intricate and thoroughly heart-wrenching loves I’ve been able to read about. Again I say, in such few words, Nghi Vo has excelled in the art of making the words count.
Synopsis: The cleric Chih finds themself and their companions at the mercy of a band of fierce tigers who ache with hunger. To stay alive until the mammoths can save them, Chih must unwind the intricate, layered story of the tiger and her scholar lover—a woman of courage, intelligence, and beauty—and discover how truth can survive becoming history.
Although When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain can be read as a standalone, I highly recommend reading them together; the feeling was something magical. In this story of Anh, the significance of recording history lies in how a story gets remembered, and how time and people twist the truth.
So question it now.
Instead of Chih being in the position to record an untold story, they must now tell a story in their attempts to stay alive. The story of the tiger Ho Thi Thao and the scholar Trung Dieu is one that was told to Chih as a child, and one that they’re forced to question now when faced with tigers who might know the story a different way. Normally, when we read stories about two different sides, they’re stories of victors and heroes, but in a story of love and betrayal, warped by time and ego, how do decide which story to tell?
As Chih told their story – and the tigers stepped in to correct their version of it – I found myself transported to Anh, watching a history change in front of me. Where In-yo’s story was a love letter to forgotten women and those who are regaining their power, Ho Thi Thao and Dieu’s story was a love letter to what once was. Together, The Singing Hills Cycle is a lyrical test of time and love, and serves as a reminder to question the stories we’re told because at the end of the day, what we learn from them is due to how they’re told, what we make of them, and how we carry them afterwards.
In case you couldn’t tell, The Singing Hills Cycle has quickly become a favorite comfort read of mine. On top of being a quick read, they’re the kinds of stories that sneak up on you bit by bit, and leave you with a sense of yearning for more.
If you’re planning to read When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain when it comes out Dec. 8, don’t forget to (re)read The Empress of Salt and Fortune. If you can think of any other favorite dual-sided stories, list them down in the comments for everyone to check out!
Links to The Singing Hills Cycle:
Until my next love letter to you,