Into the Riverlands, the third volume of Nghi Vo’s delightful series of novellas (see my reviews for The Empress of Salt and Fortune and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain), continues the adventures of Chih and Almost Brilliant as they collect whatever stories the people they meet care to share. Chih also seems to be a magnet for trouble, too, although they never cause it. They are modest enough that they probably wouldn’t consider their (mis)adventures worth saving, so it’s definitely a good thing that their avian companion Almost Brilliant has perfect recall and can share all the thrilling and comical details of what befalls the pair.
Chih and Almost Brilliant walk into a tea shop for food and refreshment in the notoriously dangerous Riverlands (home of the fearsome Hollow Hand bandits, warlords, and other people who like to murder and rob) and, before their order arrives, a fight breaks out. The waitress carrying Chih’s tea collides with a belligerent man. The man starts to throw his weight around and, like a good (if less than pious) cleric, Chih attempts to defuse the situation. Chih’s efforts are in vain. Thankfully, a martial artist sitting nearby decides to throw her weight around with the bully. Fists and furniture fly in a scene that wouldn’t be out of place in a wuxia movie. The next thing we know, Chih is traveling deeper into the Riverlands with the martial artist, her sworn sister, and an older couple who take charge of the scene in the tavern before turning into something like camp counselors for the younger members of the party.
The Riverlands road the quintet travel is not entirely safe and everyone except Chih keeps a weather eye out for trouble. In between episodes of “trouble,” they tell stories to Chih and Almost Brilliant about warrior women and legendary heroes. These stories provide an extra couple of layers to Into the Riverlands, which is one of the things I love about this series; you get many more stories than you pay for here. The tellers don’t intend it but, through our vantage point at Chih’s shoulders, we can see connections in the form of women who break out of their expected roles to make their own destinies with their fists, determination, and the help of good friends. By the time Chih separates from her road companions, it’s easy to see that there might be another pair of sworn companions who might someday become legends.
These vibrant novellas are the perfect way to be transported for an afternoon; I had a wonderful time with Chih, Almost Brilliant, and their protectors in the Riverlands. I adore the way that Nghi Vo borrows from Chinese, Vietnamese, and other Southeast Asian cultures for worldbuilding and story inspiration and I hope this series continues for many more books.