A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

A- #BookReview: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi VoThe Brides of High Hill (The Singing Hills Cycle, #5) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #5
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on May 7, 2024
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

The Hugo Award-Winning Series returns with its newest standalone entry: a gothic mystery involving a crumbling estate, a mysterious bride, and an extremely murderous teapot.
The Cleric Chih accompanies a beautiful young bride to her wedding to an aging lord at a crumbling estate situated at the crossroads of dead empires. But they’re forgetting things they ought to remember, and the lord’s mad young son wanders the grounds at night like a hanged ghost.
The Singing Hills Cycle has been shortlisted for the Lambda Literary Award, the Locus Award, the Ignyte Award, and has won the Hugo Award and the Crawford Award.

My Review:

When we first catch up with Cleric Chih as they are accompanying bride-to-be Pham Nhung and her family on their trip to make the final negotiations for Pham Nhung’s marriage to the older and much wealthier Lord Guo, the reader has the sense that they remember when Chih met Nhung at the gates of the Singing Hills Abbey back in the previous book, Mammoths at the Gates.

Just as Chih has been lulled into participating in this journey that seems so familiar, so are we.

Because the journey IS familiar, even if Chih can’t seem to recall precisely how they got there or, more importantly, why his friend and companion, the neixin Almost Brilliant, is not with them on this journey. Although, considering the events of Mammoths at the Gates, it’s not too difficult for the reader, or Chih, to understand why the situation back home might have been a bit too fraught for Almost Brilliant to leave.

But the story does seem familiar, only because it is. A young woman whose noble family is a bit down on their luck has been sold to a wealthy older man in order to restore the family’s status. She has no choice in the matter, her parents have little, and Lord Guo has it all.

However, when the Lord’s oldest son, mad and confused and drugged to his eyeballs, under heavy guard and seemingly out of his mind, interrupts the initial ceremonies it raises more than a few uncomfortable questions, which kickstarts Cleric Chih’s need to learn all the stories about the lavish old estate that Lord Guo reigns over with an iron hand – and the familiar story begins to unravel.

Spectacularly. Explosively. Into a story about revenge served, not ice cold, but in a gout of hot blood spraying out from under gnashing teeth and long, sharp claws.

Escape Rating A-: From the very first book in the Singing Hills Cycle, the marvelous The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Cleric Chih has moved from being outside the story, merely its chronicler, to being at the story’s center in Mammoths at the Gates.

This time around, Chih is as mesmerized as the reader by the story, as they are trapped within its web just as we ourselves are.

Which means that we have a sense at the beginning that Chih isn’t acting quite like themselves, and Chih has the same feeling. Also they desperately miss their friend Almost Brilliant, and so do we. We all collectively need the clear-sighted neixin to help us – and I’m including Chih in that ‘us’ – figure out what’s going on.

Of course, that’s why Almost Brilliant isn’t there. Or so it seems. Just as so many things in this story seem to be one thing but aren’t – quite.

So this is a story about illusions and lies. Nothing and no one is exactly who or what they are first presented to be. At first, it seems that what began as that rather traditional story of a girl being sold by her parents to a cruel older man is the story and we’re prepared to watch it be broken in some almost traditional way – either by Pham Nhung running away with Lord Guo’s son, who we know isn’t the madman his father’s frightened household says that he is – or with her death, whether by her own hand or Lord Guo’s.

In other words, we expect the illusion to break, but what we don’t expect, what Cleric Chih doesn’t expect, is the way that it breaks – and how thoroughly.

At the very beginning of The Brides of High Hill, Cleric Chih is remembering his late mentor, Cleric Thien, and an occasion where Thien told Chih that “Everything starts with a story,” and a very young and not yet cleric Chih asks, “But what does that mean?”

In the case of The Brides of High Hill, the story starts with a journey that looks like it might end in a romance but instead ends with something that looks like a bloody, twisted version of Cassandra Khaw’s Nothing But Blackened Teeth, and is all the more surprising for that twist in its – and our – tails at the end.

Leaving this reader with bated breath waiting for the next story in the Singing Hills Cycle, even though it has neither a title nor a projected date of publication, because this series is just that good – and I’m just that hooked on it.

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi VoInto the Riverlands (The Singing Hills Cycle, #3) by Nghi Vo
Narrator: Cindy Kay
Format: audiobook, eARC
Source: purchased from Audible, supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #3
Pages: 112
Length: 2 hrs 21 mins
Published by Tantor Audio, Tordotcom on October 25, 2022
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.orgBetter World Books

Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themselves far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be.
Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story-beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel-bears more than one face.

My Review:

The entire Singing Hills Cycle is a story about stories; the collection of them, the interpretation of them, and especially the way in which that interpretation changes over time as those stories fade in and out of conscience and memory.

Cleric Chih has come to the Riverlands to learn what the Riverlanders themselves have to say about the many, many martial arts legends that once walked the Riverlands, only to find themselves in the middle of one.

Or perhaps two. Or even an infinite number of interpretations of the very same one.

Chih, with their friend, mascot and memory recorder, the neixin bird Almost Brilliant, are on the road to Betony Docks, intending to wind their way home to Singing Hills to deliver their report of the stories and legends they have found along their most recent journey.

It’s who they are. It’s what they do. It’s what Singing Hills is all about.

Chih sees the opportunity to travel with the young martial arts master Wei Jintai, her sworn sister Mac Sang, and the middle-aged couple Lao Bingyi and Mac Khanh as a way of traveling the rather dangerous road through the Riverlands in somewhat greater safety while taking the opportunity to hopefully learn some new stories to take home.

However, the stories come to life – and death – as they travel into the lands of the Hollow Hand sect of bandits, thugs and marauders. The Hollow Hand is supposed to have been wiped out long ago, and the martial heroes who did the wiping, Wild Pig Yi and Gravewraith Chen, are assumed to be long dead.

But legends never die. Sometimes they don’t even fade away. They just become different legends. Over and over and over again. Even as they hide in plain sight and boss everyone around.

Escape Rating A+: At first, Into the Riverlands seems as if it’s a play on the Canterbury Tales, with Cleric Chih taking the place of Geoffrey Chaucer himself (who, come to think of it, by certain definitions was himself a ‘cleric’). Into the Riverlands is a journey, and every person in the party has at least one story to tell. It’s Chih’s duty to record those stories – not to become a part of one themselves.

Which most definitely doesn’t stop that from happening anyway.

It’s pretty clear from the beginning of their trip that Lao Bingyi and Khanh are more than they seem – a devoted middle-aged married couple where the wife knows everyone and everything and can’t stop from bossing people around and telling them all about themselves, while her husband is a man of few words who indulges her every whim.

And that portrait is manifestly true – while still only being one face that they wear. It’s who people expect them to be at this point in their lives. But it’s not who they have been, or even who they ARE. Those are faces they reveal only in part, and only when they must.

It’s only when the crisis comes upon them – or they come upon it – that Chih gets a glimpse of those true faces, and even those are masks that conceal one or more truths that they are not ready to reveal – if they ever will be.

It’s as though Li Mu Bai and Yu Shu Lien, the protagonists of the film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, had managed to survive their tragic story and outlive their legends into middle age. If they had, or if their tragic ending was either smoke and mirrors on their parts or literary license on the part of some chronicler, they might have become Mac Khanh and Lao Bingyi. And perhaps they did.

Certainly Lao Bingyi lies at the heart of a whole host of tales that Chih gets the barest glimpse of and is informed in no uncertain terms that it’s all they are entitled to get. That the story is hers and not theirs and NOT the Singing Hills Abbey’s.

And that’s the right ending of this tale, which was lovely in the telling even if a bit nerve-wracking for the participants in the doing.

But, as I said in last week’s review of Mammoths at the Gates, throughout the Singing Hills Cycle Chih has been moving steadily from the periphery of the story to the center of the narrative. Their own story is in Mammoths at the Gates, and it was marvelous to finally see their perspective on their own world rather than merely being a witness and recorder to others.

I read Into the Riverlands before it came out in 2022 for a Library Journal review and loved it at the time but didn’t take the opportunity to write it up for Reading Reality while it was still fresh in my memory. After re-reading Mammoths at the Gates last week in the same circumstance, I wasn’t ready to leave Chih’s world and decided to take a trip back through audio. It seemed appropriate as the stories that Chih records are stories that they are being told and I wanted to experience them the same way.

I’m very glad I went back, as Into the Riverlands made an excellent audiobook, thanks to the expert narration of Cindy Kay. And the story had added depth and meaning after reading Mammoths at the Gates and exploring the neixen birds in general, and Almost Brilliant in particular, in a story that better showcased her talents and personality. On the whole I enjoyed this book even more the second time around, to the point where it’s making me think I might want to pick up the audiobooks for the first two books in the series, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, and go all the way back to the very beginning!

One final note in reference to the ‘neixin’ and the audiobook. The thing about reading without hearing the words is that you learn how to spell words like ‘neixin’ without knowing how they sound. Listening to an audiobook is the reverse, in that you hear the word without knowing how it’s spelled (which can be frustrating when writing a review!) ‘Neixin’ does not sound at all like I thought it did, and I’m glad to sit corrected.

So reading/re-reading the Singing Hills Cycle has been lovely, and I’m already looking forward to the next book in the series, The Brides of High Hill. But listening to the story, as I think it’s meant to be told, has been a delight.

Review: Mammoths at the Gates by Nghi Vo

Review: Mammoths at the Gates by Nghi VoMammoths at the Gates (The Singing Hills Cycle, #4) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #4
Pages: 123
Published by Tordotcom on September 12, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

The Hugo and Crawford Award-Winning Series!
The wandering Cleric Chih returns home to the Singing Hills Abbey for the first time in almost three years, to be met with both joy and sorrow. Their mentor, Cleric Thien, has died, and rests among the archivists and storytellers of the storied abbey. But not everyone is prepared to leave them to their rest.
Because Cleric Thien was once the patriarch of Coh clan of Northern Bell Pass--and now their granddaughters have arrived on the backs of royal mammoths, demanding their grandfather’s body for burial. Chih must somehow balance honoring their mentor’s chosen life while keeping the sisters from the north from storming the gates and destroying the history the clerics have worked so hard to preserve.
But as Chih and their neixin Almost Brilliant navigate the looming crisis, Myriad Virtues, Cleric Thien’s own beloved hoopoe companion, grieves her loss as only a being with perfect memory can, and her sorrow may be more powerful than anyone could anticipate. . .
The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih, but may be read in any order, with each story serving as an entrypoint.

My Review:

When the Cleric Chih returns home to the Singing Hills Abbey after three years on the road collecting stories, they are astonished to discover that there really are mammoths at the gates of the abbey. It’s not exactly like saying there are barbarians at the gates – but as Chih learns it’s not exactly unlike, either.

Because in the stories that the clerics of the Singing Hills Abbey collect, mammoths ALWAYS come at the end. After they’ve trampled everyone and everything that stood in their way.

So Cleric Chih already knows that something terrible has happened even before they walk through the gates of the Abbey. And it doesn’t take them long to learn at least the tip of the iceberg of the rest.

Discovering that under the trumpeting of mammoths, it’s grief and stories all the way down.

The abbey is virtually empty, as most of the chroniclers and archeologists rushed to the site of a temporarily uncovered village, located in a valley that has been flooded for years, has been temporarily and briefly unflooded, and will be flooded again in just a few short months. Stories are what the Singing Hills Abbey is, and what it does, and there have been stories sunken in that village for decades that won’t survive the re-flooding.

So away they went.

In their absence, Chih’s best friend Ru has been made temporary Abbot, making the divide between the two lifelong friends even deeper than it has been, as Chih’s duty is to leave the Abbey to gather stories, while Ru, disabled in childhood by disease, is left behind to learn how to administer the place.

Which he is, and has, but…nearly the first thing that happened after most of the abbey’s population was out of reach was the death of the most senior cleric, Cleric Thien. Thien was both Chih’s and Ru’s mentor and father-figure. But before he became a Cleric, Thien was a high-ranking advocate (read lawyer) in the Empire.

Thien was disowned by his family and stripped of his imperial status when he became a Cleric. But the mammoths at the gate demonstrate that someone official, at least, has not forgotten Thien’s imperial service. And now they want him back. Dead or alive.

Escape Rating A+: I love the Singing Hills Cycle, and have from its very beginning in The Empress of Salt and Fortune. At first, it seemed like this series was a bit of an exercise in mythmaking, fantasy not because there’s any particular magical system, but because it feels like fantasy and doesn’t fit, neatly or otherwise, into any other box.

Also the writing is utterly lovely every step of the way, and it’s easy to get caught up in Cleric Chih’s world and the stories in it, even if we’re never quite sure whether or not it has any relationship to our own. There’s magic in these stories, they’re magically compelling, and that’s all that’s necessary to make for a captivating read.

Howsomever, while each story is complete in and of itself, the series as a whole is Chih’s literal journey around their world to learn and record the stories they find in that world, and that overarching frame provides a vehicle for telling fantastic adventures.

One of the fascinating points about that overarching story is the way that Chih began very much on the periphery of it. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih seemed merely to be the vessel into which the handmaiden Rabbit poured her tale of the Empress that she served, loved and hated, all at the same time, while Chih was there to make a record of it and explicitly not become a part of it.

But the following stories, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain and Into the Riverlands, nudged Chih towards the center, as they spend the night When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain telling the tiger of the tale the tale of the tiger as it is remembered among humans, in the hope that said tiger won’t eat them and their companions before morning. While in Into the Riverlands it almost seems as if the tale is happening around them even as the villagers tell that tale to Chih.

The tale in Mammoths at the Gates is Chih’s own story, it’s happening TO them as we read it. It’s a story about love and loss, a story about friendship and compromise, and a story about growing up and letting go.

It’s also a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of a truth that sets no one free, and a love that both transcends and transforms death.

This was my second read of Mammoths at the Gates, and it was even better this second time around, as I had more time to savor it. I didn’t want to leave Chih and their world when I turned that final page, and I’m happy to say that I won’t be. I picked up the audio of Into the Riverlands, which I read when it came out but didn’t review here, because I wanted a chance to experience the Singing Hills Cycle as it feels like it’s meant to be, as a story being told and recorded.

AND, and I’m oh-so-happy about this, a fifth book in the Singing Hills Cycle, The Brides of High Hill, just popped up on Edelweiss last night as coming out in May, 2024. I’m thrilled and already looking forward to it!

Review: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi Vo

Review: When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain by Nghi VoWhen the Tiger Came Down the Mountain (The Singing Hills Cycle, #2) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #2
Pages: 128
Published by Tordotcom on December 8, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

"Dangerous, subtle, unexpected and familiar, angry and ferocious and hopeful. . . . The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a remarkable accomplishment of storytelling."—NPR
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.
Nghi Vo returns to the empire of Ahn and The Singing Hills Cycle in this mesmerizing, lush standalone follow-up to The Empress of Salt and Fortune

My Review:

Like the first book in the Singing Hills Cycle, the utterly marvelous The Empress of Salt and Stars, this is a story that compels the reader to think and mull and ponder well after the final page is turned.

Part of what this reader was thinking and mulling and pondering was a phrase that kept cycling through my head, about “the smile on the face of the tiger”. I knew it came from somewhere – hence the cycling, so I had to look up the origin.

It’s a famous limerick, variously attributed to either Lear or the extremely prolific Anon, but is generally acknowledged to have been written by William Cosmo Monkhouse in the late 19th century.

Here it is in full:

There was a young lady of Niger
Who smiled as she rode on a tiger;
They returned from the ride
With the lady inside,
And the smile on the face of the tiger.

When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain is a story about the smile on the face of the tiger. But as the story progresses, the question about exactly who is riding on which tiger, and which tiger is smiling at the end, changes.

There’s still a smile on the face of a tiger. But an even bigger smile on the face of an even larger animal. And a smile on the face of the humans who live to tell the story another day.

Escape Rating A: This is a story within a story. An academic is relating the story of the legendary tiger to an equally magnificent tiger – who is also telling the story to the academic. Both tale tellers have agendas. Chih wants to survive, The tiger Ho Sinh Loan wants the academic to relate the “correct” version of the tale, so that she can be assured that the majestic nature of her legendary kin is being properly presented to the humans. Sinh Loan may also want to eat the academic and their companions for dinner – and certainly will if the tale is told too incorrectly.

The night becomes a battle of wits and wills, as Chih both wants to live AND wants this new version of a well-known story. After all, that is their job, to collect such stories for the Singing Hills Abbey from which they came.

So the story is told, and adjusted, and told. As Chih hems and haws, obfuscates, and prays. And as their companions listen for the sound of approaching hoofbeats from the cavalry that they desperately hope will come to rescue them all in time for it to do them any good. And if not, Chih will at least leave her notes for the next academic to find.

Like its predecessor, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, this is a tiny box of a tale, short in length but utterly and charmingly encompassed within its brief length. And yet, even though it finishes satisfactorily as a story and doesn’t need to have been any longer, it still leaves the reader wishing there was more.

Not exactly of this story, because it is completely complete, but of this world. The cleric Chih who tells the story of the legendary tiger Ho Thi Thao to her overly punctilious tiger audience is a sibling to Scheherazade, telling the tale in the hopes of spinning it out long enough to spare their own life and the lives of their companions. Chih is a collector of tales, and obviously has more of them to tell. The rather bloody conclusion of this particular story left this reader wanting to hear the rest.

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi Vo

Review: The Empress of Salt and Fortune by Nghi VoThe Empress of Salt and Fortune (Singing Hills Cycle #1) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via NetGalley
Formats available: paperback, ebook
Genres: fantasy, historical fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #1
Pages: 122
Published by Tordotcom on March 24, 2020
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes & NobleKoboBookshop.org

With the heart of an Atwood tale and the visuals of a classic Asian period drama The Empress of Salt and Fortune is a tightly and lushly written narrative about empire, storytelling, and the anger of women.

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.

My Review:

This was lovely. And fascinating. I have the feeling I’ll need to read it again to have even a shot at picking up everything there is to pick up from this tiny and perfect little story.

It feels like the creation of a myth – or the exploration of one. It reads like it’s a bit of hidden history – a history that has been suppressed and that, of necessity, will continue to be suppressed.

From one perspective, it’s the story of all the women who have been lost to history – all of the lost and the murdered and the exiled and especially the silenced. It’s a tale as old as time, but not one of the pretty ones.

It’s the story of a princess bartered away for peace between two kingdoms, a princess who is cast into exile and imprisonment when her days of usefulness are over. And it is all the tragedy that the scenario implies.

At the same time, it’s a story about not just fighting back, but actually about triumphing over one’s oppressors. About taking what are supposed to be the ruins of a life and turning them into something sharp and pointed and ultimately victorious.

It’s a story about being forced into the shadows and becoming the knife that strikes from the dark.

An empress is forced into exile. Instead of taking her exile in any of the ways that exiled empresses usually do, she finds a way to turn the tables on her oppressor – by gathering up the talents of all the forgotten ones in the land she will come to rule.

But this isn’t her story. Not exactly.

It’s the story of her faithful servant, handmaiden and secret lover. The story of the woman who befriended and enabled her, and who sacrificed her own happiness to make her rise possible.

So it feels a bit like a historical fable, in the setting of an Asian period drama. It also has something to say about history, how it’s written, how it’s discovered, how it’s preserved.

Whether the teller of that history is a ghost, a spirit or just one of those forgotten voices is left to the reader to decide.

But whoever is telling this story, or discovering it, or recording it, it’s beautiful and haunting every step of its way.

Escape Rating A-: It took me a bit to get into this, quite likely because it wasn’t what I was expecting. The story is not told in a straightforward fashion. Instead it’s dribbled out in little sips and small bites, as the former handmaiden – or her ghost or spirit – reveals it bit by bit to the historian who has come looking for artifacts to document the hidden facets of an all-too-recent history.

It reads like a legend, like a myth or story being told, with hints and oblique views and a lesson that’s meant to be inferred rather than explained.

There’s certainly a feminist bent to it if you look, as all of the major characters are female and this is definitely a story where the woman who was supposed to fade into obscurity instead takes control – and is extremely subversive but effective at it.

In the end, the empress creates her own myth, and we’re reading that myth as it’s told by the person who helped to create and shape it. There’s a lyrical quality to the telling that doesn’t so much grab the reader as insinuate itself into the reader’s consciousness.

Although this is labelled as fantasy, it’s fantasy of the mythic variety. It’s fantasy because it’s not SF and it’s not anything else – not because there is any practicing magic. But magic there definitely is.