REVIEW: Into the Riverlands (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 3) by Nghi Vo
The Ignyte and Locus Award finalist, and Crawford and Hugo Award-winning series continues as Chih finds themself in the riverlands, home to near-immortal warriors and ancient feuds
Wandering cleric Chih of the Singing Hills travels to the riverlands to record tales of the notorious near-immortal martial artists who haunt the region. On the road to Betony Docks, they fall in with a pair of young women far from home, and an older couple who are more than they seem. As Chih runs headlong into an ancient feud, they find themself far more entangled in the history of the riverlands than they ever expected to be.
Accompanied by Almost Brilliant, a talking bird with an indelible memory, Chih confronts old legends and new dangers alike as they learn that every story—beautiful, ugly, kind, or cruel—bears more than one face.
Dear Nghi Vo,
When I saw that there was to be a new Singing Hills Cycle novella, I smiled with delight. Give me a story with Cleric Chih and Almost Brilliant and I will hug it and kiss it on both cheeks. Once again the pair from the Singing Hills monastery are out on the road, observing things, making notes of stories and knowledge to take back with them, and getting into dangerous situations. They’ve faced down tigers and learned about fierce women who seek revenge so a bunch of bandits – even ones with a bad reputation – ought to be a cakewalk. Right?
As with the two previous novellas, this one starts quietly. Chih and Almost Brilliant are near the Riverlands – known for the tough people who live there and the fierce bandits who have long preyed on them and on travelers. They meet two other groups at an “under-renovation” inn and all decide to throw in together on a journey through the hills and valleys. From their first evening stop, it’s clear that the bandits and dangers of long ago haven’t been totally cleared out. Waking up for their turn on watch, Chih and Almost Brilliant hear a fantastic tale about a strong woman named Wild Pig Yi and how she met an equally strong bandit named Gravewraith Chen while protecting a beautiful woman being sent on a journey by her family to make a political marriage.
Almost Brilliant is thrilled at the story and listening to it certainly helps pass the time. It will also make a wonderful addition to the store of knowledge at the monastery. That is, if the group survives the journey.
I love the storytelling within these stories. This is an age of mainly oral communication and those who tell tales are masters of the art. I feel as if I’m sitting beside a crackling fire, late into the evening, being held spellbound as I wait to discover “what happened next?!” One thing I want to mention is that Cleric Chih readily admits that they are not brave and not a fighter which is wonderful to me. There’s no turning into a superhero for them. Another character gripes about how most women who are mentioned in legendary stories are beautiful. Where are the stories about the ugly women? Why, right here!
Sang, it turned out, had several ugly woman stories, tales from the riverlands about female fighters of extraordinary unattractiveness who became legends through feats of martial brilliance. Chih had heard none of them before, and Almost Brilliant only remembered one or two.
There’s travelling and wuxia fighting (“Apparently Southern Monkey style likes face strikes, thought Chih in appalled fascination.”) and storytelling and Chih trying to observe, remember, and record all that they see. A lovely found family emerges from the novella complete with ribbing and teasing plus obvious deep affection of long standing. By the end, as Chih and Almost Brilliant consider what they have been told and how that fits in with what they’re seeing, it appears that the family will grow by the addition of one practical person (and you can never have too many of those types of people) and one other, also not suited for a life in town, about whom stories (some of which might actually be true) are already being created.
I’ll remember that I was terrified, Chih thought. I’ll remember what it was like to see a battle between people who don’t fight like people, who are what legends come from.
This is another standalone story but by all means, read them all. A