Fantasy Novella Review: The Brides of High Hill 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. The Brides of High Hill will be released on May 7, 2024.

While I still haven’t circled back to When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain, I’ve read and enjoyed everything else in The Singing Hills Cycle—starting with the exceptional, Hugo-winning The Empress of Salt and Fortuneand it’s turned into a series where every entry is immediately starting high on my TBR. So when I had the opportunity to get an advance copy of The Brides of High Hill, I jumped on the opportunity. 

The series follows a traveling cleric/storyteller/story-collector named Chih, often joined by their companion Almost Brilliant, a magical bird with an infallible memory. Often, the novellas center stories that Chih tells or collects rather than stories in which they actively participate, but the fourth and fifth entries both find Chih in the middle of the action. The Brides of High Hill makes minimal reference to prior adventures and can be read in isolation, finding Chih escorting a merchant’s daughter to what her family hopes will be a betrothal to a rich and powerful man. But no sooner have they arrived than they hear dire warnings about the fate of his past wives, and Chih must get to the truth before their new companion meets the same fate. 

The Brides of High Hill leans heavily into the Gothic atmosphere, with a rich man hiding dark secrets, a compound full of crumbling rooms with the scent of decay, and an allegedly insane relative who might know more about what’s happening than anyone else is willing to admit. In fact, there are times that it feels like an outright Bluebeard retelling in an East Asian setting, though I’d characterize it as more of an inspiration than a retelling, as there are enough twists and turns to keep the novella feeling distinct. 

Vo is a talented storyteller, so it should come as no surprise that The Brides of High Hill successfully evokes the unsettling atmosphere of foreboding in place of crumbling beauty. But I found myself not immersing quite as easily as in past books, with a couple more “wait, who is talking again” moments than usual. It’s quite possible that some level of disorientation is intentional, as Chih finds themselves traveling without Almost Brilliant and struggling to trust their own memory without their neixin companion, but the narrative didn’t flow together quite as smoothly as in some of the past entries. 

Make no mistake, every Singing Hills book I’ve read has been very good. But I see a pretty clear demarcation between those that are merely very good and those that hit another level of excellence, and that comes in the quality of narrative layering. I haven’t read a one that isn’t trying to do more than one thing, but sometimes the pieces come together so perfectly that they elevate the level of the whole, and other times they remain quality pieces with flashes of brilliance but without that grand moment of everything clicking into place. And I would put The Brides of High Hill in the latter category. The atmosphere and attempts to uncover the truth are plenty entertaining, the plot offers enough surprises to keep from dullness, and Chih has an additional challenge working without Almost Brilliant, but it doesn’t have the thematic depth of Mammoths at the Gates, and there’s no grand moment of convergence on the level of The Empress of Salt and Fortune or Into the Riverlands

Overall, The Brides of High Hill is a treat for continuing series fans and for those who particularly enjoy Gothic vibes, but for those new to The Singing Hills Cycle, I’d start with one of the first three books. 

Recommended if you like: The Singing Hills Cycle, Gothic settings, Bluebeard inspiration. 

Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Dreams and is a prime candidate for Judge a Book By Its Cover. It’s also a 2024 Release by a POC Author featuring a Bard (storyteller), a Disabled Character, and an Alliterative Title. 

Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads. 

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