Saturday, November 14, 2009

By the Mountain Bound - Elizabeth Bear

By the Mountain Bound is the second book in Bear's Edda of Burdens trilogy. The first part, All the Windwracked Stars, was one of the best books I've read in 2008 (mind you, a lot of reviewers disagree with me on this one) so I was looking forward to this one. Bear had the questionable honour to have her book released on the same day Tor chose to release the new Wheel of Time book The Gathering Storm. Whoever came up with that brilliant idea owes Bear an apology. Of course I couldn't help my self and put this book down after a hundred pages when I finally got my hands on a copy of Jordan's latest. I probably didn't give this book that attention it deserves so while no apology from Tor may be forthcoming, for what it's worth, I do apologize.

Where most trilogies are more or less in chronological order, Bear chooses to write a prequel. At the opening of All the Windwracked Stars we find a distraught Muire, the Historian and the sole survivor of the battle at the end of the world. By the Mountain Bound tells the story of how this particular end of the world came to be. Since it's creation five centuries past, the immortal Angels of Light have lived in relative peace in the world. Most of them where born from the sea at the moment of creation but several have come form Midgard, the world than has come before and is now dead. Among them Mingan, the Wolf, although he does not remember the death of Midgard.

On day Strifbjorn, the Warrior, finds a nearly drowned woman washed up on the beach. The woman, Heythe or the Lady, arrives with tidings of war. An army of giants is about to descent on them and the Einherjar need to prepare. Soon the first rifts in the unity of the Angels of Light become apparent. Heythe's methods are not acceptable to a large group of the Angels. War seems inevitable, but one against giants.

Where All the Windwracked Stars had a science fiction/steampunk element to it, By the Mountain Bound dives even deeper into the Norse mythology that inspired much of the story. This book will probably be considered more of a fantasy novel. Like in the previous volume, Bear does not believe in explaining all the strange words she uses, so unless you are well versed in Norse mythology (or a master of the Google search engine) you are going to miss an awful lot of references. This combined with Bear's rich, poetic use of language means one needs to pay close attentions. At 318 pages it looks like a fast read. It isn't.

Bear divides her chapters into three points of view, the Wolf, the Historian and the Warrior and uses a different style for each of them. The Wolf is fittingly written in the first person, present tense. The Historian is also a first person perspective, but not surprisingly, in the past tense. The Warrior is a third person perspective. Bear switches between these three, sometimes several times in a chapter. While I appreciate the care and skill Bear put into writing this, the constant switching between these styles is taxing on the reader.

Bear invests heavily in her characters in the book. Most notably the villain from All the Windwracked Stars Mingan. His roll in the end of the world is a complex one. I must admit I was not entirely convinced by Mingan's actions. The cycle of guilt, violence and resignation he goes through, makes him appear very fatalistic. You'd think that a few centuries of living, or in his case probably millennia, would give him a bit more insight in the character and motivation of his fellows. On the other hand, the tense relationship between Mingan and Strifbjorn does add dramatic touch to the larger conflict. Unfortunately Strifbjorn also seems quite ready to embrace death. As clever as manipulation on Heythe's part may be, a bit more free will in those characters would have been nice.

While both Mingan and Strifbjorn play important parts in the unfolding drama, Muire's role is more subtle. Not known for her prowess in battle, Muire is more of a witness. This does explain quite a bit about her actions in All the Windwracked Stars. I suppose some people will find the downplaying of her strengths and importance annoying but I rather liked he subtle influence.

I must admit that without the steampunk and post-apocalyptic atmosphere of the previous book, By the Mountain Bound did not appeal to me quite as much as All the Windwracked Stars. That being said, it is, certainly in a stylistic sense, a very good book. One I plan on giving my undivided attention sometime before the third book, The Sea thy Mistress, is released next year. If you enjoyed All the Windwracked Stars you'll want to read this.

Book Details
Title: By the Mountain Bound
Author: Elizabeth Bear
Publisher: Tor
Pages: 318
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Hardcover
ISBN: 978-0-7653-1883-1
First published: 2009

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