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.
“You will never remember the great if you do not remember the small”
A Barnes & Noble employee spotted me in the fantasy section and recommended this one to me in the strongest of terms. Moved by his enthusiasm more than anything, I got this book. After reading it, I am glad he did it and I will be continuing with the series next year.
This is the first time I’m reading Nghi Vo and her writing is absolutely charming. It is poetic and beautiful. The author also uses an embedded narrative to tell the story and I really liked how the story is revealed bit by bit. Initially I was confused as much as the protagonist was, but the writing was so rich and the plot had enough intrigue that I was able to comfortably adjust to the way the story was being told.
Now, despite the great prose and great theme that this story carries, I am not able to rate it higher because of two reasons. (Blurb level spoiler alert!) One is the rushed climax. By itself, the climax is actually incredibly powerful, one woman operating from a remote place is able to orchestrate enough schemes to bring down an empire. It boils down to a scene where one woman who was in exile all along essentially alters the hierarchy of power within the whole empire. But the impact of such a display of power is lessened because of too many gaps in building towards it. If I remember correctly, only the last two chapters start moving toward this and the rest of the chapters are all establishing her character and how her life was. So while I love that she was able to achieve what she achieved, there are simply just too many questions left unanswered.
The other bone I have to pick is the non-connect across the chapters. Every chapter has a time leap and addresses different time periods in the empress’s life. I have read books with similar time-leaps before but there was enough fleshing out or some sort of continuity that helped. There was not enough cohesion for a smooth flow of the story in my opinion.
In conclusion, this was a mixed reading experience for me but I am still going to continue with the series based on the strength of the writing. That is just top-notch. Some more pages toward the ending alone would have made this a top read for me.
“Chiming bells. Chih rolled to their feet, glancing around the perimeter and squinting at the jangling string of bells that surrounded the small campsite. For a moment, they were back at the abbey in Singing Hills, late for another round of prayers, chores, and lessons, but Singing Hills did not smell of ghosts and damp pine boughs. Singing Hills did not make the hairs on Chih’s arms rise up in alarm or their heart lurch with panic.”