Fantasy Novella Review: Into the Riverlands by Nghi Vo

This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Into the Riverlands will be released on October 25, 2022.

Despite a decent amount of hype, I only read Nghi Vo’s The Empress of Salt and Fortune when it showed up on the Hugo ballot in 2021, and it was one of the biggest pleasant surprises of my Hugo reading. I never circled back to the second entry in the Singing Hills Cycle, but given that they can all be read as standalones, that didn’t stop me from requesting an ARC for the third: Into the Riverlands

Like the rest of the series, the story is framed around cleric Chih and their feathered companion Almost Brilliant wandering the countryside searching for stories, whether historic or mythic. Into the Riverlands sees them enter the titular, rough-and-tumble riverlands, where they encounter some tales and some people who are larger than life. 

While The Empress of Salt and Fortune was a single story, told obliquely through a series of vignettes around a central character, Into the Riverlands has much more the feel of story-collecting. We see much more of Chih and Almost Brilliant in their travels, and though there is a line connecting many of the tales they encounter, it still feels like a collection of tall tales, rather than a single epic. 

But Vo absolutely nails the folkloric voice in the each tale, and Chih’s travel companions are entertaining enough to keep the journey interesting in its own right. And with a length that barely passes the line from novelette into novella, it doesn’t really need a strong central plot—it may be hard to keep a reader engaged for 300 pages with traveling and storytelling punctuated by periodic action, but it makes for an excellent 100 pages. And the details really add to the overall experience, from the interruptions as different characters recount slightly different versions of the same central legend to the entire party roundly mocking an absurd theater production of a classic story. 

As the book progresses, connections between various stories become more and more obvious, building to an entertaining and satisfying climax. But it’s not the sort of tale that ties every single thread together in a neat bow. Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be. The group of travelers is plenty entertaining enough to fill a short novella with chatting and telling stories. There’s certainly danger at times, so I hesitate to slap it with the “cozy” label, but I expect Into the Riverlands to hit big for fans of low-stakes fantasy. 

Recommended if you like: low-stakes fantasy, folklore, odd travel comparisons. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s a 2022 Release by a BIPOC Author with a Revolution or Rebellion and, while I don’t recall the Cool Weapons being canonically magical, it sure seems to fit the spirit of the square. 

Overall rating: 17 of Tar Vol’s 20. Five stars on Goodreads. 

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