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The Singing Hills Cycle
by Nghi Vo

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted November 24, 2020
Edits and Addenda on December 8, 2020 & November 10, 2022

1. The Empress of Salt and Fortune
2. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
3. Into the Riverlands

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Another excellent addition to the tor.com novella program. The Singing Hills Cycle of stories is set in a land reminiscent of imperial China, but with several alterations and fantasy elements. Nghi Vo was born in Illinois, and currently resides somewhere "on the banks of Lake Michigan." I can't say if this uses historical events or characters, or if they are solely the invention of the author. If the former, I'm not sure of the era or dynasty, but the titular empress, In-yo, could be from a northern land similar to Mongolia. She was married to the emperor in a strategic diplomatic maneuver, but once she had born an heir he was taken from her and she was exiled to Thriving Fortune on the banks of Lake Scarlet. She lived there for about six years before returning to the capital. Her story is told in the reminiscences of a loyal servant, a woman who says her family name is Sun, but she prefers to be known only as Rabbit. The northern people used trained mammoths, to ride and use as pack animals, and also in battle. A phrase was used that I thought could have been an alternate title, since it is similar to the second story: "When the mammoth had trampled the lion."

The collective name for the series refers to the Singing Hills Abbey, the clerics of which are tasked with compiling histories of all important events and personages. The empress has recently died, and Cleric Chih being nearest to Lake Scarlet at the time, they travel there along with their hoopoe, Almost Brilliant. A hoopoe is a medium size bird with a large, feathered crest. Almost Brilliant is also referred to as a "neixin," which in Chinese pinyin means heart, or innermost being. Almost Brilliant can speak, and not just mimicing speech like a parrot, they are highly intelligent and have an eidetic memory, aiding Cleric Chih in chronicling the possessions of Empress In-Yo which had been left at Thriving Fortune. At first they think that Rabbit is there to loot the dwelling, only to learn she had served the empress for many years, both during and after her exile. As they take an inventory of the empress's personal possessions, Rabbit tells a story about each.

A slow, methodical, lyrical tale, about loyalty, found family, and perseverance, but also an indictment of the monarchy and outdated customs. Some of the events revealed are far from idyllic. In-yo resented her banishment, and her separation from her child. Her attendants were rotated from the capital from time to time, although Rabbit became a permanent fixture. More than just a servant, Rabbit was also a close confidant, and sometimes lover. This is not just a story of female companionship and solidarity, since Rabbit also had a relationship with Sukai, a fortune teller In-yo employed for advice. He is only one of the seers she used, and not just to cast her fortune. They also acted as couriers, passing coded messages to In-yo's allies in the north. It is not clear if In-yo's guardian, the Minister of the Left, suspected Sukai's espionage, or whether he thought Sukai was one of In-yo's lovers, but in either case Sukai was eliminated from the scene. Now it is fifty years after those fateful events, and a new empress will be sitting in the Dragon Court. Rabbit is convinced she will succeed, since after all, "Angry mothers raise daughters fierce enough to fight wolves."

The end of the Kindle file has a preview of the next story, the same excerpt featured in a free sampler Tor made available a month or so ago, which includes several other stories. I don't know if the new empress will be featured, but Cleric Chih returns. When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain will be published in two weeks, December 8. I've pre-ordered the e-book, which should drop onto my Kindle around 11pm Central the night before. I'll update as soon as I can after that. Can't wait.


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Posted December 8, 2020
There are several tigers in this story, three that attack Cleric Chih and the mammoth drover escorting them to the mountain pass, and another of legend. Chih and Su-Yi make it to the barn of a way station, the mammoth Pulik threatening enough to keep the tigers at bay for a while. The tigers are the sisters Sinh Loan, Sinh Cam, and Sinh Hoa. Loan is the eldest, who also exhibits the ability of shape-shifting into human form. That reminds Chih of the story of Ho Thi Thao, a tiger who took a human woman to be her bride. Sinh Loan makes it clear that they will likely eat the humans, but will allow them to bargain for their safety if Chih tells the story properly. During a cold, dark night around a roaring fire, Chih tells the story the way they learned it, but Sinh Loan continually interrupts to say that Chih is wrong about some events.

Again I'm not sure if this has any basis in Chinese myths, or if it's all original from the author. Not knowing many traditional stories I can't even say if it's in that style, but it seems genuine. Trung Dieu was the last of her family to have the opportunity to stand for the imperial examinations. Several of her ancestors were eligible, but wars and other tragedies kept them from fulfilling that desire. Dieu treks for days to reach the capital city of Ahnfi, but along the way she stops for rest at a temple shrine. One must never pass a shrine without giving an offering and praying, but instead of a temple priestess, Dieu encounters Ho Thi Thao in human form. Dieu had never considered herself pretty, but it seems she was pretty enough for a tiger. Ho Thi Thao is infatuated with Dieu, following her on her journey, helping her out of trouble several times. An old saying is "history is written by the winners." In a similar vein, the person telling a story gets to shape it, and if the story-teller is human it is inevitable they will view it from a human perspective. Sinh Loan is angered whenever Ho Thi Thao is depicted in a negative way, then offers an alternate version in which the tiger is the superior being. No matter which story is most accurate, they both end with Dieu becoming the tiger's bride and returning to the mountains with her.

Something that is almost historical is a book of poems that Dieu carries, one that Ho Thi Thao also likes and memorizes. But Songs of Everlasting Sorrow by Lu Bi is not the same as the historical poem of the same name by Bai Juyi, which is sometimes known by the alternate title Song of Everlasting Regret. I've read a translation of that, but I much prefer Nghi Vo's poem. Fantasy requires as much suspension of disbelief as science fiction, but when the tale is told with such beauty and heartache it is easy to believe a human and tiger could fall in love. All it took was compassion, loyalty, and commitment. The reader should approach this with the same level of commitment, to revel in a love story for the ages.


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Posted November 10, 2022
The third entry in this series finds Cleric Chih and her hoopoe Almost Brilliant traveling along the Huan River. After having their head shaved by a local barber, Chih goes to a nearby tea shop. There they meet two women together that hardly look like companions. Wei Jintai is tall, beautiful, graceful, and finely dressed, while Sang is short, stout, and clothed in the cheapest hemp garments. Their introductions come after Wei Jintai displayed masterful martial artistry in defeating a rude patron twice her size, her ability eliciting excitement from Almost Brilliant: "That was Southern Monkey style!" An older couple enter the tea shop, whom Chih had seen outside the barber's tent; Lao Bingyi and her companion Mac Khanh, maybe her husband but I don't think that was ever stated. After helping cleanup the mess Wei Jintai's fight had caused, Lao Bingyi pays for the damages, and all agree to travel together overland to her home at Betony Docks. Apparently the river looped and wound around the countryside so much a trip by barge would take much longer.

During their walk many stories are told about the area, of both heroes and villains. The Hollow Hand gang had once terrorized the roads, and even though it was thought they had been roundly defeated years before, there might be another group working in a similar manner. They stop at a shelter the first night, where they find a man hanging from the rafters. They cut him down and bury him, Chih offering feeble words of comfort. They are not that type of cleric, having never performed a eulogy. Chih wishes they knew the man's story so it could be preserved in the Singing Hills archive. Instead they make note of the various stories the others tell, and Almost Brilliant chimes in with memories too. They clash with bandits later on the road, and also when they reach Betony Docks, defeating them on both occasions. Wei Jintai again shows remarkable fighting ability, as do Lao Bingyi and Khanh, surprising for their age. It is later implied they are even older than they look, and possibly the subjects of one of the stories that had been told along the way. On several occasions it was stated that in the past people lived much longer than was common at the present time. It's left vague though, it's up to the reader to decide which historical luminaries they might be.

The shortest story so far, but still rich in detail about the various levels of society, about traditions and legends, whether they are true or not. I don't think Chih worries too much about whether they are chronicling truth. The value of a tale is in how the reader or listener receives the message, how that shapes the way they incorporate the lessons into their own actions. I don't know how many more stories we will get about Chih and Almost Brilliant, but I'm confindent there will always be wisdom to behold. Again, highly recommended.


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Nghi Vo

Empress - 3/24/20
Tiger - 12/8/20
Riverlands - 10/25/22

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