Okay, so — this was difficult to review, because it was everything I want in a book, except for when it wasn’t.
By the Mountain Bound is the prequel to one of Bear’s previous books, All the Windwracked Stars, which I read a year or so back and rather enjoyed. To recap:
All the Windwracked Stars kicks off with the aftermath of the Battle of Ragnarok, aka THE END OF THE WORLD. The protagonist is a valkyrie named Muire who broke and ran during the final battle that killed the rest of her brethren, and is now all kinds of fucked up about it. And since the world doesn’t quite end with Ragnarok, but continues to circle the drain for the next few centuries, she has a long time to carry that survivor’s guilt.
I found Muire an unremarkable protagonist, inoffensive but not compelling — the villain, on the other hand, was electric. I don’t even have words for him. Mingan, called the Wolf and the Suneater, among other epithets, the only other person to walk out of Ragnarok alive and the one whose betrayal made it happen, I don’t even know what he is, but he is sex and death and poetry rolled together into one exquisitely savage package, and he’s not described in any way that should make you think, hawt, and yet, AND YET.
(To borrow a phrase: “I’d hit that, take a shower, and then hit it again.” Ohhh, Mingan.)
He and Muire have so much history, and he has raging sexual chemistry with everyone and everything. The world that Bear paints is magnificent, gorgeously atmospheric, and puts me in mind of the same vibrant post-apocalypticism that Emma Bull uses in Finder and Bone Dance — societies that are built on the ruins of the old world but still feel extraordinarily alive. Vibrant may seem like an odd word to apply to the last decaying city in a world that’s all but dead, but it is — it’s home to these characters, and to all the other people who are still living and loving and dying with all the energy that people do.
So that was All the Windwracked Stars — now rewind a few thousand years.
By the Mountain Bound covers the events leading up to that apocalyptic battle, and splits the narrative between Muire, Mingan, and Strifbjorn, their clan’s war leader. Strifbjorn’s name had come up in Windwracked Stars, because Muire had been hopelessly in love with him back in the day… and he had been head over heels for Mingan. In Mountain Bound, we get the whole epic, blisteringly intense love affair of Strifbjorn and Mingan, and it will break your goddamn heart.
However, the problem with these books — and this is a problem, it’s what’s keeping them from going straight to my all-stars shelf — is that I don’t always feel like I’ve got a good handle on what’s going on. I have no context for where the story is taking place — they seem to live in a Viking-ish hall in a snowy forest, but what is that in relation to the rest of the world? Is this a fantasy version of our world or someplace else entirely? What level of technology should I expect? What are these people, because they’re greater than humans but less than gods, but how’d they get there? When they talk metaphysics, is this something I’m supposed to be taking literally?
Without that context, I have no idea what I can expect to happen, and often can’t tell what’s going on or why. When developments occur, I usually have to look to the characters’ reactions to tell if it’s a good thing or a bad thing. (Which, full disclosure, might be because I’m a careless reader and I tend to read fast-nigh-on-skimming.) It’s disconcerting to have Something Significant happen, and I’m like, “Uhhh, I can tell this is a big deal, but should I be cheering or booing?” Mingan: “SONOVABITCH.” Me: “Boooo!”
I do wish it were easier to follow, but ultimately Bear’s writing makes it not matter so much. Even when I couldn’t grasp what was going on except to gauge what was good from the reactions of the characters, the characters themselves had gotten their hooks into me and I was right alongside them for the story, feeling what they felt, wanting what they wanted, and aching for them while they broke each other’s hearts.
Oh yeah, and her prose? Is beautiful. Emotional and evocative, with lines that read like pure poetry.
So. I have no pithy summary for my feelings toward those books, but feels, oh man do I have them.
An interesting chicken-and-egg question is which order to read them in, chronological order or the order in which Bear released them. I recall needing a while to get into Windwracked Stars, because it kicks off with Muire being devastated and suicidal after the battle and I was like, “Do I care? I don’t know her, I don’t know what happened, I’m not invested in her pain yet,” whereas Mountain Bound seemed to grab my attention immediately. (Hard to gauge, since I was also familiar with the characters already, and so from the very first page I was like, “♥ :D !! Mingaaaan! ♥ :D!”)
On one hand, the emotional clusterfuck that is Muire and Cathoair and Mingan in Windwracked Stars is infinitely more meaningful in context, when you know what Muire and Mingan know but Cathoair doesn’t. On the other, the events in Mountain Bound are rendered all the more poignant for knowing how Muire and Mingan wind up. At the end of Mountain Bound I was like “HOLY SHIT, need to reread Windwracked Stars RIGHT NOW,” because I was ready to cry by the time Muire limped off the battlefield (the same battlefield I hadn’t given any shits about the first time I read about it, haaa).
So on the balance, I’d say read By the Mountain Bound first.
Which really makes you wonder — that Elizabeth Bear, by herself, writes excellent books, and Sarah Monette, by herself, writes excellent books, and together they write… A Companion to Wolves.