Sunday, October 1, 2023

Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

All of Nghi Vo’s works center around the same theme: the relationship between reality and the stories we tell, and how this relationship is modified by who tells the story. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, we re-learn the story of a famous empress through the eyes of her maid servant, and in this way learn about the untold sacrifice of the commoner that makes this noble woman’s heroic tale possible. In When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain, we learn humans and tigerfolk have told the same folklore tale from different angles, such that a tale of torture and escape becomes one of love and betrayal. This theme continues also in Vo’s novels outside of this series of novellas: in The Chosen and the Beautiful, we rediscover The Great Gatsby through the eyes of Daisy Buchanan’s best friend, and Daisy becomes a more understandable yet tragic character; in Siren Queen, the racism and queerphobia of Hollywood impacts what stories get told, and these stories in turn shape how people from these groups see themselves. 

Into The Riverlands continues this theme, raising questions like: when should old stories be abandoned and replaced with something new? What makes for a satisfying end to a story? Why are all women in stories either ugly or beautiful? How do figures of history influence how stories are told about them? Can you keep your story to yourself, refuse to have it be told? But I don’t feel like these questions had satisfying answers and I think the reason is the story structure. 

The previous novellas in the Singing Hills Cycle series featured cleric Chi journeying to discover stories to take back home to their monastery, encountering a group or an individual on the way and hearing out their story. This frame story would interrupt the folktale story often, giving commentary, context, and discussing how the folk story conflicted with other versions of the tale. In Into The Riverlands, there is no one inner story, but several brief folktales, just a few pages each. Instead, the “frame story” was the main story. Part of my difficulty with this novella was expecting the formula to continue through this volume — enjoying the cozy setting and pretty prose, I kept waiting for the “main story” and it wasn’t until the 80% mark before I realized, oh, this is it! 

Another challenge here is that now Chi is the main character; suitably, for someone dedicated to telling stories, the questions raised are largely to do with how to turn real events into a story. The cohesion to all these questions about story-telling is granted by Chi's sudden change in relationship with the stories told to them. Chi is thrust into the position of not scribe but witness to Water Margin-like adventures of bandits and fighters. It will be up to them to turn the events into a story — but we don’t see them grapple or reckon with what this means to them in the context of their vocation. The novella reads like perhaps it is setting Chi up for a more active role in storytelling, leaving the conclusion of the character arc open for a subsequent installment in the series. Which I will absolutely read, despite my disappointment in this book.

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