This Hugo nominee for the best novella is remarkable in only one aspect: it’s wholly unremarkable. The best I can say about this book is that it provides a pleasant short read, devoid of any immediate conflict or anything that could even hint at an established narrative structure. Unfortunately, this makes it so bland that I had to sit down to write the review within a few short days after reading the story, before I forgot all about it.
Chih is a monk from an order of archivists and historians. She is tasked to collect stories, document them and bring them back to her monastic library. One of her stops on her journey is the abandoned palace Thriving Fortune, where she hopes to learn more about the late titular empress In-yo. There, she chances upon Rabbit, an old woman and former servant of the empress, who agrees to tell her stories from her time in the palace.
In-yo was a princess from a northern tribe, married to the emperor for political reasons. After she gave birth to his heir, the emperor cast her into exile at Thriving Fortune. There, she spent years preparing her revenge, cultivating a network of spies disguised as fortune tellers, and slowly initiated the infiltration of the empire by northern troops. Eventually, she triggered an invasion, and with the help of the troops already inside, overthrew the emperor and ruled until her death. Rabbit has always been with her, and when she gave birth to a child she had with one of In-yo’s spies, the empress took the girl as her own and made the baby her heiress. The next day after Chih learns this, Rabbit disappears, and Chih makes her way to see the coronation of Rabbit’s daughter.
The story is this straightforward. It does not have any branching stories, which is understandable, as Rabbit reports on only what she’s seen and remembered. Because of the latter, the chapters are somewhat disjointed, but the general timeline is still easy to follow. And even though the world is somewhat reminiscent of the Far East in ancient times, the events are easily understandable to western readers as well. Vo’s efficient prose just caps a narrative that is very pleasant to read, without the need to think too hard.
This is both a blessing and a curse. On one hand, the reader may spend blissful two hours to read the book. On the other, it may take only two days before the story completely evaporates from the reader’s mind. I found Empress to be bland, without any hook that would let me think of it after I finished reading. The characters are extremely flat, there is no remarkable worldbuilding, and even In-yo’s progression from an exiled wife to the empress lacks any impact. It appears that Vo may have had the world and characters fleshed out in her mind but did not bother to share them with the readers. This is evident in the only noteworthy element, that of Chih. It appears that she had multiple personalities, or perhaps was somehow merged with her pet bird, which could talk, as she was always referred to in plural. However, Vo did not elaborate on this in any way, so I don’t know who exactly Chih was, but she didn’t interest me enough to pursue this issue any further.
All in all, if you want to kill about two hours, Empress is a better alternative than watching television. Personally, though, I saw no lasting impact of the book on my mind. In this regard, the story is right on top of the distribution curve for speculative fiction quality.