Set in a world reminiscent of Imperial China, the novellas of Nghi Vo’s Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih. Mammoths at the Gates, the fourth book in the Cycle, is available now from Tordotcom Publishing. So let’s take a quick look at the first three books and get ourselves caught up, shall we?
Spoilers, obvi, but only mild ones.
The Empress of Salt and Fortune
Timeline: Runs through three successive rulers: the Emperor of Pine and Steel, the Empress of Salt and Fortune, and the Empress of Wheat and Flood. Present day is not long after the latter empress takes the throne.
The present: Chih ventures to an abandoned estate on the shores of a grand lake where they meet Rabbit, the elderly caretaker. Chih catalogues the items in the house. They are traveling with Almost Brilliant, a neixin (a creature akin to a talking bird, but don’t let her hear you make that comparison).
The story: Rabbit tells of her time as a servant to the northern wife of the Emperor of Pine and Steel. The story is less about how he conquered her lands, stole his heir, and exiled her to the middle of nowhere than what the northern wife and Rabbit decided to do about it.
Chih: Chih is a cleric at the Singing Hills monastery, who specializes in collecting and recording histories and stories. We know almost nothing about Chih, except that they seem comfortable in their work and are probably mid-career. This novella is contemplative and quiet. Although it’s the beginning of the series, it has the calmness of a long life well lived.
When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain
Timeline: The story is set back before the dawn of the Ahn Empire, when the land was still composed of many “warring states” following the collapse of the Ku Dynasty. The present seems to be during the reign of the Empress of Salt and Fortune, so before the first book.
The present: Chih hires a mammoth scout named Si-yu to take them through a mountain pass on the back of her mammoth, Piluk. Along the way, they’re captured by three tiger sisters. To save their lives, Chih must tell the story of the tiger queen Ho Thi Thao and her scholar lover Dieu. Almost Brilliant is occupied elsewhere and doesn’t appear in this novella.
The story: Dieu sets off for the great city of Ahnfi to take the imperial exams she’s prepared her whole life for. She encounters Ho Thi Thao, a tiger that can shapeshift into a woman, on the road and can’t seem to shake her. Not that she really wants to. Their relationship is fraught and sexy, but several acts of violence threaten to tear them apart. Chih’s version makes Dieu and the other humans look like heroes while the tigers’ version makes Ho Thi Thao seem very clever. Which is the truth? Does it matter?
Chih: Here, Chih is a little more careless, a little younger, and a little more willing to take risks. They aren’t at the point of their career where they’ve seen just about everything and can strategize the best way to respond, but neither are they fresh out of the monastery and eager to prove themself. The novella feels as disjointed as Chih’s story. It’s romantic yet bloody, deadly serious yet energetic. It leaves the reader feeling unsure of what just happened but understanding that they were a part of some bigger story.
Into the River Lands
Timeline: The stories take place sometime in the past, decades to centuries ago, while the present seems to be during the reign of the Emperor of Pine and Steel and somewhat early in Chih’s career, before the first two books.
The present: Chih is traversing the border region of the Ahn Empire, a region known as the Riverlands. Chih takes up with two sisters and a husband and wife as they walk to a dockside town.
The story: Most of the novella is set in the present, and the characters Chih travels with either only share parts of their personal stories or share nothing at all. But we do get a story about how Shaking Earth Master defeated the notorious Hollow Hand bandits and another about how the brawler Wild Pig Yi and the hammer-wielding Gravewraith Chen met the Beautiful Nie who was as gorgeous as “the moon and the most beautiful of flowers.” The stories told on the road weave into the present in ways not even Chih expects.
Chih: Chih has been out of the Singing Hills and in the world long enough to recognize when they’re in the middle of an event that’s about to become a legend, but are still green enough to be frightened by what they see and unsure of what to do in a crisis. Almost Brilliant is with them and is as young and earnest as Chih is. This novella is playful and light like the stories within it. In the first novella, Chih is older and wiser; they know how to wait for a story to be told in the way the teller wants to tell it. But here in the third they bounce into other people’s stories like a pinball, not just recording or recounting a story but becoming the story.
Alex Brown is a Hugo-nominated and Ignyte award-winning critic who writes about speculative fiction, librarianship, and Black history. Find them on twitter (@QueenOfRats), bluesky (@bookjockeyalex), instagram (@bookjockeyalex), and their blog (bookjockeyalex.com).