Nghi Vo’s 2020 The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a standalone secondary world novella.
The Empress In-yo of Anh is dead. Another woman will be crowned Empress. Now that In-yo’s reign is over, long-buried secrets can be revealed. Cleric Chih is assigned to rectify history.
No one could have predicted that hapless In-yo would have attained power. She was not born in the empire but in a land north of it — a land recently subdued by the Anh. The lady In-yo has been sent south to become one of Emperor Sung’s many wives.
The women’s quarters holds almost three dozen secondary wives. Competition for the emperor’s attention is intense; the wives conspire against each other. In-yo has one advantage: her situation is hopeless. She is ugly, by the exacting standards of the court. She cements no valuable alliance. She can safely be ignored by the great ladies of the court.
This is true until she provides Sung with an heir. Now she is a potential rival. Her enemies combine to have her sterilized, dismissed from court, and sent away to exile in a distant wilderness. Even there she must convince them that she is docile and nonthreatening.
Her most powerful enemy is the Minister of the Left. He has surrounded her with spies. She knows that if she appears a threat, she will be killed. The minister believes that he has neutralized her.
He will find that he has not.
The setting of this novel is inspired by Imperial China. A powerful emperor; a draconian legal system that punishes disloyalty (real or imagined) in brutal ways intended to discourage rebellion . Even the high-born are at risk. If they fail in the cut-throat politics of the court, they can be executed for invented offenses in imaginative ways.
The culture is hard on men and even harder on women. They can be sold into prostitution; they can be sold as servants; they can be seized in lieu of unpaid taxes (as was In-yo’s servant Rabbit). Marriage is no protection. Wives who are no longer useful can be sent away or disappeared. They are at the mercy of their husbands. They have few resources other than scheming.
So how did In-yo and Rabbit escape rustic isolation, surrounded by spies, and rise to the throne? Cleric Chih arrives at Lake Scarlet to unravel the mystery. We too learn how they did it in this short, delightfully written tale.
1: Draconian laws might seem to ensure loyalty and obedience. Disappoint one’s superiors, die by the death of a thousand cuts. History, however, shows that harsh punishments for minor transgressions can convince previously loyal functionaries to found a new imperial dynasty.