This review is based on an eARC (Advance Reading Copy) provided by the publisher via NetGalley in exchange for an honest review. Mammoths at the Gates will be released on September 12, 2023.
Nghi Vo hooked me on The Singing Hills Cycle with the the wonderful, Hugo-winning, found object epic The Empress of Salt and Fortune. That inspired me to pick up Into the Riverlands, which has more of a “traveling the countryside and picking up folktales” vibe, and both were good enough to send Mammoths at the Gates to the top of my list.
Mammoths at the Gates stars Chih, the same story-collecting cleric from the first three novellas, though like the others in the cycle, it stands alone from a plot perspective. But for the first time in the series, Chih is not traveling in search of stories, but is returning home to the Singing Hills Abbey, only to find their mentor dead and the abbey threatened by the deceased’s family members. They want the body, and they have mammoths.
Like all the Singing Hills novellas, it’s short, and it’s beautifully written, this time with a central theme of grief and remembrance. The chief conflict in the book is between various factions pushing to remember the dead in their own way. The clerics have their memories of a mentor and leader, the family have stories of the man before the abbey, and the cleric’s magical neixin companion has her own memory of her former partner. Intertwined through all of it is the threat of physical altercation between the family and the clerics, internal strife among the neixin, and hints of the uncanny as the the spirit of the dead departs.
When compared to my other two reads in this series, I didn’t think the plot threads in Mammoths at the Gate came together quite as smoothly. There’s still a pretty tremendous climax in which nearly every relevant party comes together to share their stories, in the process finding themselves exposed to facets of the departed cleric that they’d never known. It’s an emotionally intense and generally fascinating reflection on the complexity of individuals, the stories we tell, and the way we remember.
But unlike the other novellas, that climax occurs with major plot points left to resolve, and it leaves the secondary climaxes feeling something like afterthoughts. The final chapters certainly serve to tie the loose threads, but after such a powerful and satisfying scene, the closing of the other arcs just feels a little bit clumsy and lacking in tension—even when the risk of being harmed by mammoths is extremely high! They aren’t necessarily bad endings or bad stories, they just don’t match the incredibly high standard set by what came before.
On the whole, it’s a good book with some elements that are truly outstanding. But it feels a little bit less cohesive than the other entries—even the entries that were just story collecting—which draws attention to the variance in quality among the subplots. It’s absolutely worth a read for the reflections on grief and remembrance alone, and it may have my favorite chapter in the entire series, but I found myself wishing I’d been reading a novelette that focused on these aspects and left the mammoths aside entirely. The other storylines are reasonably good, but they dilute some of the excellence.
Recommended if you like: The Singing Hills Cycle, stories about grief and remembrance.
Can I use it for Bingo? It’s hard mode for Mundane Jobs, Mythical Beasts, and Sequel, and it’s also a Novella that’s Published in 2023 by a POC Author. You can make a good argument that it’s a Queernorm Setting, but there is some friction over pronouns, as clerics all use they/them and the family of the deceased insist on using the he/him that their ancestor had used before joining the abbey.
Overall rating: 16 of Tar Vol’s 20. Four stars on Goodreads.