Monday, May 13, 2024

Book Review: The Brides of High Hill by Nghi Vo

Another beautifully written entry into the Singing Hills cycle, but departing from the previous books' structural devices... or does it?

The Brides of High Hill is the fifth installment in Nghi Vo's Singing Hills cycle - of which we here at Nerds have reviewed books one, two and four - that follows Cleric Chih in their wanderings, collecting stories for the Singing Hills Abbey and discovering strange things, and stranger people in the process.

Each of the previous novels has had something of a twist to it, structurally speaking. The Empress of Salt and Fortune, for instance, tells its tale through objects being discovered in an old house, and When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain through a story within a story, drawn from two traditions of the same narrative. One of the delights of continuing to read the series is the anticipation, the wait to find out what the gimmick (in the entirely complimentary use of the word) is going to be this time. Mammoths at the Gates, the fourth volume, kept the reader waiting a fair way into the book to find that out, and against the backdrop of an abbey at siege in all but the most scrupulous definitions, this gave a pleasing sense of tension. The Brides of High Hill likewise lets the wonderment linger on, pushing it even further than its predecessor. But is it too long of a wait this time? Perhaps. 

On the one hand, it still does the job. The bit, the device, the gimmick, whatever you want to call it, still leaves the reader with a little something more than just a typical narrative would. It's still a good story well told, with the same vivid description, the same loving lingering over food, the same palpable atmosphere of all of Nghi's work. But when I come to talk about this series as a series, the selling point is always the device. It's what distinguishes this from other works. If I didn't have the rest of the series to contextualise this entry, however, I might not be inclined to think of it that way at all - instead, I might describe it as a twist ending, which is something else entirely.

Or... well, is it? At what point does something shift from a device, an interesting upending of the usual narrative, and become a twist ending? Where's the line? Wherever it is, The Brides of High Hill feels like it is actively flirting with it. And that leaves me with two parallel experiences of it as a story.

Purely on its own merits, with nothing to compare it to, I really enjoyed it. Vo is great at pared down worldbuilding, giving us in novella space all we need to thoroughly envision the world of her books, because she knows exactly what to focus on, which bits matter to make the reading experience a rich one, without compromising on atmosphere or flavour. There's nothing beyond what is needed, but absolutely everything you need, and that balance is exquisitely handled, here just as much as her other stories. I have a very clear visual impression of several rooms and scenes in the story, a tactile memory of the mouldy library and the book the cleric finds there, moments of light and sound and colour when the story zooms in on critical scenes. It is by no means sparse - those scenes are fully built up, especially with clothing and with food, which is always a strong part of Vo's storytelling for me - but every single piece feels critical and purposeful, and so the story fits and flows in its small space.

The growing strangeness of Chih's situation is also well handled, intruding at first only subtly round the edges, never going in feet first. You feel embedded in their view of the situation, and so you get to follow them through their own experiences and realisations, and I at least had the wonderfully joyous experience of discovering the twist along with them (which is a rare delight for a chronic predictor of endings to mysteries). It's a good twist, too. It does exactly what you want out of one - forcing you to look back at the whole of the rest of the story before it and exclaim "ohhhHHHHhhhhh" as you realise just how much it was built in all along, if only you had noticed.

And Chih just remains a lovely character to spend time with. Their gentle pragmatism about their vegetarianism, their enjoyment of the world, their willingness to just let fortune steer them and see what comes, all make them a pleasant narrative perspective. I keep coming back to food here, as I have in previous reviews of the Singing Hills books, but it is one of the series' great strengths - Chih enjoys food, and describes it so vividly, it's very easy and comforting to enjoy it along with them. I love books that bed the reader into the sensory experience of the world, and food is such an emotive part of the sensory experience that when it's done right, it latches right onto my soul and has me hooked.

If it has a weakness, it's that the secondary characters are less compelling than they could be. The creepy son is indeed creepy, and the weirdly upbeat young bride is indeed slightly weird and upbeat... but neither of them latched onto my heart the way it felt like they might have, or could have. There was just something a little flat about them. But truly, and especially in such a short novella, this is not the greatest crime in the world.

And so on the whole, purely as itself, it was a good, well-written story with a mystery and a twist, all of which I enjoyed reading and simply could not put down.

And then... you compare it to the rest of the series. And that's where it gets sticky. Because instead of something throughout the story, you have a twist ending. But where those structural devices in the other stories were something of a USP, well, everyone's done a twist ending. It's just fundamentally less exciting. But maybe the twist forcing you to reassess the story that comes before it count as being pervasive through the whole narrative? Or does leaving you in suspense waiting for the device change the experience of the book as a whole? Is this actually a long con on Nghi Vo's part, toying with our expectations now that the rest of the series has set a pattern? I honestly don't know.

If it is though, it didn't entirely work for me. There's a lot of foreshadowing for the twist ending that does mean you recontextualise a lot of story once you have that knowledge. And that certainly makes it a good twist. But I yearn for the extra tasty structure of the previous stories, the way Vo plays with craft, with form, and I do think this one is weaker for the contrast with its forebears. I cannot turn off the part of my mind that brings with it the expectations Vo has set for us, I just can't. And if those expectations are being played with, alas, I am not so subtle nor so smart a reader as to have fully got that, so it exists in an awkward limbo of shoulda woulda coulda for me. If it is something smarter, then I think I needed that to be made more plain on the page for me to spot. And if it's not... then it falls a little flat when compared to its rather more fancily dressed older siblings.

It's still a good story, even despite this. It's still a 7/10, still enjoyable, readable and utterly devourable. I still love Cleric Chih. I still love the world. I still love Vo's lingering descriptions of place and food and texture and architecture. I still love the way the stories turn out, never quite how I expect them to. But this one is missing that little bit of something that truly makes the Singing Hills cycle magical, and I hope, if we continue to get more in this series, the magic is returned.


The Math

Highlights: beautiful descriptions, a well-managed twist ending, Cleric Chih remains a delight

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Reference: Nghi Vo, The Brides of High Hill, [Tordotcom, 2024]

POSTED BY: Roseanna Pendlebury, the humble servant of a very loud cat.