2022’s Into the Riverlands is the third installment in Nghi Vo’s secondary-world fantasy series, The Singing Hills Cycle1.
Cleric Chih and their intelligent talking bird companion, Almost Brilliant, venture down into the Riverlands. On the plus side, along the river there are fewer fantastical beasts to fear. But … there are lots of humans, who can be just as troublesome as shape-shifting tigers.
Cleric Chih collects history. Folk tales are a form of history. The Riverlands have an abundance of folklore, folklore its inhabitants are happy to share with Chih. The tales are exciting but they do suggest a state of affairs that a traveler might find worrisome.
Of particular note is the frequency with which cruel, murderous bandits appear as antagonists. Equally concerning: many of the bandit-crushing heroes seem a bit short on public spirit, preferring to be motivated by revenge or insults to their honor. They show no self-sacrificing urge to protect random helpless travelers.
As long as history (and the stories it inspires) stays history, there is no need for Chih to worry. The scholar cannot help but notice that fellow traveler Wei Jintai seems like a traditional martial arts hero, from bombastic proclamations to feats of martial arts. Still, having one half of the formula for thrilling adventures is no concern as long as the other half fails to appear.
Long ago the Hollow Hand sect terrorized the Riverlands. They were more than homicidal bandits; their sect included evil necromancers. The Hollow Hand made the mistake of murdering the wrong beautiful woman. This sufficiently vexed the Shaking Earth Master (who was mostly indifferent to regular people, but fond of pretty women) that he exterminated the sect.
Alas, Chih and her fellow travelers encounter a hanging corpse. Someone, it seems, has been inspired by the tales of the Hollow Hand to restart the gang. All the bandits need now is suitable victims, victims like Scholar Chih.
Hollow Hand 2.0 is determined to Make the Hollow Hand Great Again. Unfortunately for the revivalists, they fall short on demi-god-level martial artists and malevolently talented sorcerers, being in fact a collection of not particularly skilled young idiots whose confidence is not matched by their prowess. As the dead man proves, while they can be quite dangerous to lone peasants and merchants, their business plan falls apart as soon as they attack well-armed groups or even martial artists like Wei Jintai. Where do SFF authors get their crazy ideas?
Presumably the empire in which this is set has some sort of law enforcement mechanism. It doesn’t appear to deal with bandits all that well. The original Hollow Hand seems to have run riot without ever encountering police or soldiers. Hollow Hand 2.0, or at least its few survivors, will be dragged off to face the court system but only after highly motivated individuals deal with them. The current system seems to be wonderful from the perspective of people who collect tales of thrilling adventure, but less wonderful for people who want to avoid first-hand experience of such adventures.
Into the Riverlands and its characters are as delightful as the two previous installments. My only quibble, and it is a very minor one, is that this is a case where novella length, while sufficient for the story the author wanted to tell, isn’t long enough for the story I wanted to read. Thus far, even Vo’s novels have not been all that long. Generally, I am in favour of shorter books but in this case, the opportunity to stay in Vo’s worlds longer would be welcome.