Into The Riverlands by Nghi Vo (The Singing Hills Cycle #3)
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 themselves 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.
LENGTH: 100 pages
Queer Rep Summary: Gay/Achillean Secondary Character(s), Bi/Pan Secondary Character(s), Genderqueer/Nonbinary Main Character(s).
The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are meant to be able to be read in any order, interchangeable and episodic. The latest entry, INTO THE RIVERLANDS, achieves that with a meandering series of stories, interruptions, and anecdotes as Chih and Almost Brilliant travel in the riverlands with a mix of persons. It's not trying to wrap up anything left hanging, the storyline is entirely new and self-contained, and the entire tale is both introduced and resolved. It's not the last book in the series, but it also doesn't specifically leave anything left hanging for later. The floating nature of the story is carried off well. While I am reading them in order (mostly due to discovering the series when only the first book was available), I do concur that they would make sense in whatever order the reader is so inclined to use. Chih has a transformative experience which is said to be new to them thus far, but it's not so life-changing as to render the previous stories into a distinct "before" and "after" that might be jarring if read out of order. Their voice as a main character is consistent with earlier books, which is especially important as they and Almost Brilliant are the main points of continuity within the series (with the idea of the Singing Hills Temple as a refrain but not an actuality thus far).
INTO THE RIVERLANDS is a rambling tale, where Chih is being told stories, often in the somewhat messy and multilayered manner of a group of near-strangers who know similar tales, and may have shared backgrounds, but where each has their own version. Towards the end, there is a reveal that re-contextualized many of the stories. I suspect that if I reread the book I would find that it is even more looping and connected than I was able to understand the first time. I like books which have some kind of revelation that changes the way that the rest of the story is perceived or understood, and I’m also impressed that such a short story conveys so much and has such an interesting twist. It might, however, make the story feel confusing and a bit pointless, because only a couple of things happen in the midst of all the stories. It's definitely not pointless, and it fits in well with the broader series. Almost as soon as I finished I wanted to read it again to understand it better.
Chih has been in danger elsewhere in the series, but this time they are confronted with the messy and logistical realities of death and its aftermath in a way they've never been before. In a previous book, they were in danger of being killed, but it was not the kind of danger that involved them having to figure out what to do with bodies afterward. This time while traveling through the river lands, the group comes a body. There's a mark from the Hollow Hand, a once prominent and terrifying group whose current iteration is composed of whatever group decides that claiming an affiliation would strike fear in victims and bystanders.
I’m glad this is a novella because the way it meanders feels random and unconnected at first and it might have been boring in a longer story. However, as a novella, it had just the right amount of time to cultivate the impression of people traveling together and telling each other stories before they're suddenly interrupted first by death and second by danger.
Graphic/Explicit CW for death.
Moderate CW for grief, sexism, cursing, violence, injury detail, murder.
Minor CW for abandonment, child abuse, panic attacks/disorders, kidnapping, trafficking, cannibalism.