Mammoths at the Gates
No matter how much of a funk I am in about reading, nothing gets me rushing to my Kindle app faster than a new Nghi Vo Singing Hills novella. Nope, not even Murderbot. By the way, I say “Kindle” because getting hold of Tor.com novellas in the UK is expensive. I do want paper versions of these books eventually. And I am trying to remember to buy on Kobo or Weightless Books instead because that’s a good thing to do. The point is that when Mammoths at the Gates arrived, I dived straight in.
So, what is happening with Cleric Chin? Well, as the story begins, Chin has just arrived back at the Singing Hills monastery. Yes, at last we are going to get to see something of that famous repository of memories, and the other monks who inhabit it. Or at least we would, except for two things.
Firstly, most of the monks have gone. Royal engineers have drained a reservoir called Snakehead Lake. The town of Houshi, which the creation of the reservoir had drowned, is accessible again for the first time in years. The monks have four months in which to work, before the dam is repaired and the water brought back. There are a lot of ghosts to interview.
The other issue is rather more obvious. Camped outside the gates to the monastery are two large royal war mammoths. Their rider, and her sister, are very unhappy with the monks for some reason. Having experience of such beasts elsewhere, Chih is well aware of the damage that they could cause. Negotiations are in the hands of the temporary senior monk, Chih’s childhood friend, Ru.
That’s how the story is introduced. If you are used to these books, you will know that it is not what the story is all about. Inevitably there are deeper currents driving events. Chief amongst these is the death of Cleric Thien, one of the oldest of the residents of the Singing Hills, and the man who was tutor to both Chen and Ru when they were novices.
The problems with the mammoths and their riders even affect the neixin aviary. And we meet more of these amazing birds. There is a male neixin called Cleverness Himself, who seems determined to live up to his name. We get to meet Almost Brilliant’s chick, who is currently named Chiep, but will presumably adopt a more serious name when she is an adult (who knows, neixin culture is a mystery to us). Anyway, she’s adorable. And finally there is Myriad Virtues. She was the neixin companion of Cleric Thien, and she’s dying of grief.
In that magical way she has, Vo draws all of these threads together to provide a satisfactory solution to the problem of the mammoths, telling us much about Cleric Thien, about the childhood of Chih and Ru, and about neixin, along the way. It is all very clever and beautifully told, and I expect this book to be on the Hugo ballot next year.
Title: Mammoths at the Gates
By: Nghi Vo
Publisher: St. Martin's Press
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