With Into The Riverlands (hardcover, Kindle, audiobook), author Nghi Vo is continuing the Singing Hills Cycle of fantasy novellas she launched with 2020’s The Empress Of Salt And Fortune and continued later that year with When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain. In the following email interview, she discusses where she gets the ideas for these stand-alone but connected stories, as well as her hopes for the Cycle going forward.
Photo Credit: © 2021 C.J. Foeckler
For people who haven’t read the first two books — The Empress Of Salt And Fortune and When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain — what is the Singing Hills Cycle about, and what kind of a world are these stories set in?
The Singing Hills Cycle features the wanderings of a historian cleric named Chih, who is often accompanied by their companion Almost Brilliant, a memory spirit shaped like a hoopoe bird. Together, they travel a magical fantasy world that is very much influenced by Southeast Asian history and whatever cool scientific or historical article I’ve been reading lately.
The thing to remember about Chih’s world is that it is large and brilliant and strange just like ours is, with as many delights and contradictions as that implies.
And then for those who have read The Empress Of Salt And Fortune and When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain, and can thus ignore me writing SPOILER ALERT, what is Into The Riverlands about?
In Into The Riverlands, we join Chih and Almost Brilliant as they journey to the riverlands, a particularly lawless and haunted region that is the refuge and home of near-immortal martial artists, the kind of people that they write plays and novels about. Chih and Almost Brilliant fall in with a group of travelers making their way to Betony Docks, and find out that in the riverlands, everyone has a secret, and most have three or four.
Like all of the Singing Hills Cycle novellas, Into The Riverlands can be read as a stand-alone story. The connecting link is Chih themself, who is perpetually looking for good stories, good food, and nice people to travel with.
When in relation to writing The Empress Of Salt And Fortune and When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain did you come up with the story for Into The Riverlands, and what inspired this third book’s plot?
The Singing Hills Cycle books are pretty extemporaneous. In my head, Chih is always off doing something interesting, and when it’s time to sit down and write a new one, mostly all I have to do is to check in and see what they’ve been up to recently. I check their adventures against a list of continuity points I like to hit, and then we’re off.
What are some of the things, literate and otherwise, that influenced this third novella?
Into The Riverlands owes a great deal to Jin Yong’s Legend Of The Condor Heroes series and to Shi Nai’an’s Water Margin. You also can’t divorce it from modern xianxi and wuxia works like The Untamed and also from the hours I spent watching bootlegged martial arts movies with my maternal grandfather.
People think of The Empress Of Salt And Fortune and When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain as silkpunk fantasy novellas. Is that how you see them, and thus Into The Riverlands?
I mostly think of the Singing Hills Cycle as “oh my gosh, I got published, I got published, what the heck, did anyone know that was happening?”
While they’re all fantasy (pretty hard to get talking memory spirits that look birds otherwise), I resolved early on that they’re all going to be different, so Empress is a political drama, Tiger is a romance, and Riverlands is a martial arts adventure. If I had to pick one thing, I would just call them fantasies, because they deal with the fantastical, the strange, and the impossible.
You mentioned that Into The Riverlands is a stand-alone novella. And in our interview about your historical fantasy novel Siren Queen you said, “I really love stand-alones.” So how did this become a series?
The Empress Of Salt And Fortune was never meant to be the start of a series. However, from the beginning, Chih and Almost Brilliant have always been characters that had their own lives beyond the first and last page of that novella, and when I was offered the chance to create the Singing Hills Cycle, it was very easy to pick up the threads to their further adventures.
So, what’s the plan moving forward?
Honestly, while I do have a list of points I would like to hit in terms Chih’s past and future, the Singing Hills Cycle can go on as long as people will let me write them. I’ve asked Tordotcom for a two-volume notice before they cut me off, because I think that’ll be what it takes to let me bring the series to a fair and satisfying end, but I would love to write Chih and Almost Brilliant’s adventures forever.
You’ve also written a number of short stories, many of which are linked to on your website. Are any of them part of the Singing Hills Cycle?
I don’t think any of them are, but if anyone’s looking for stories with a similar tone, “Black Bones And Boiled Eggs,” “Five Stories On A Monsoon Night,” and “Lotus Face And The Fox” would probably be a good start.
Has there been any talk of collecting your short stories into a, uh, collection?
I don’t think anyone wants to do this yet, but I really like the idea.
Hollywood loves turning fantasy tales into movies, TV shows, and games. Do you think Into The Riverlands — and, by extension, the Singing Hills Cycle — could work as a movie, show, or game?
I would love to see the Singing Hills Cycle in an animated format with different styles of animation for every story. I think that would really suit the nature of stories told by different tellers and the different tones each story hits. Similarly, I would also love to see them adapted into graphic novels.
So, is there anything else you think people should know about Into The Riverlands and the Singing Hills Cycle?
Just like The Empress Of Salt And Fortune was the most epic Singing Hills Cycle novella, and When The Tiger Came Down The Mountain was the most romantic, Into The Riverlands is the most fun. While it’s got dark bits, I had such a great time writing this one and it shows.
As for the Singing Hills Cycle in general, they’re short, they stand alone, and they’re all different from one another, so it’s a pretty low investment if you want to give one a try.
Finally, if someone enjoys Into The Riverlands, and they’ve already read all of your other books, what similar kind of fantasy novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next?