The Empress of Salt and Fortune wasn’t a bad story; it just wasn’t a developed enough one for me. My impression upon finishing this novella—”…that’s it?“—remains my lasting impression of this novella as a whole. In other words, I was underwhelmed.
I want to say that I found this underdeveloped because it was so short, but that would be doing a disservice to all the short fiction I’ve recently read that has been excellent despite, and even because of, its length. The Empress of Salt and Fortune had all the bones of a compelling story: a world based on Asian history and mythology, a story-within-a-story narrative, a focus on the inner workings of an empire from a female perspective. Sadly, though, these facets just didn’t come together for me; the compelling parts didn’t cohere into a particularly compelling whole, here. The characters, especially, felt insubstantial, lacking definition. What little character development they had was confined to their roles, and to the attendant set of qualities you would expect them to have based on those roles (handmaiden = self-effacing, unassuming; empress = bold, self-assured). It was characterization that felt more uninspired than anything else, producing characters that were less fleshed out and complex and more archetypal and one-note.
The plot, as well, only made my issues with the one-note characterization more glaring. It was a fairly traditional, linear plot, moving in exactly the direction you would expect it to move in. That is to say, it’s a plot that ends very conservatively, so much so that I was a bit baffled when I got to the ending because I didn’t think that the author would go in such an unexpected, and frankly underwhelming, direction.
Having said all of that, I don’t expect every story I go into to be ground-breaking or insanely innovative; I love me some good ol’ classic tropes (hate-to-love romances, found family, etc. etc.) from time to time. The issue here is that I didn’t think the tropes in this particular story were as well-executed as I wanted them to be; for me, The Empress of Salt and Fortune was just one of those stories that was more compelling in theory than in actuality.
(Thanks so much to Tor.com for providing me with an e-ARC of this via NetGalley!)