By Simon Demetriou
Regular readers of this column (if such people exist), will have discerned that I am a fan of Nghi Vo. Her third novella in the The Singing Hills Cycle, Into the Riverlands, does nothing to diminish my fandom. The adventures of cleric Chih continue with a new story about storytelling and the relationships between truth and fiction, present and past – this time with added fight scenes.
As you can probably guess, the setting for this instalment of Chih’s wanderings with her talking hoopoe, Almost Brilliant (who would be quick to remind you that she is not really a bird but a neixin, a Chinese word meaning ‘innermost being’), are the riverlands of the fantasy version of ancient China in which the novella cycle is set. As ever, they are on a mission to gather stories, which, by way of Chih’s note-making and Almost Brilliant’s capacity to remember everything she sees and hears, are recorded in the Singing Hills monastery annals forever.
The riverlands do not disappoint. Renowned for the ruggedness of their inhabitants, for violence, bandits, legendary beauties, brawlers and martial artists, the story opens with a classic set piece. While looking for a bite to eat and a place to stay, Chih and Almost Brilliant witness an encounter between a gargantuan brute and a waiflike girl. The brute is brutish. The waiflike girl is anything but waiflike. She is, in fact, Wei Jintai, master of Southern Monkey style fighting. And the brute gets what’s coming to him.
From here, our two travellers join Wei Jintai and her sworn sister, Mac. These four encounter another pair: Lao Bingyi and Mac Khanh, ostensibly an old married couple. Together, our six travellers decide to head to Lao Bingyi and Khanh’s home at Betony Docks, with the promise of tales for Chih and Almost Brilliant, and a potential home among the riverlands’ warlike people for Wei Jintai and Sang.
On the way, as stories of the mysterious Hollow Hand bandits lead into real encounters with the sect’s latest incarnation, we see that there is far more to the old married couple than they let on. As the other characters – and the readers – piece together the clues they are given, Vo characteristically raises questions of authorship and authenticity. In this instalment of Singing Hills, what is most at stake is how far others have any right to one’s personal histories. Is it more important to preserve truth or privacy and personal integrity? What we find is that the human side of those we make into legends is as captivating as the narratives built up around the people. A lesson worth learning, and a book worth reading.