By the Mountain Bound is the second book in The Edda of Burdens series by Elizabeth Bear even though it is actually a prequel to the first book, All the Wind-wracked Stars (review). The series is based on Norse mythology and the first novel began with the end of the world. By the Mountain Bound fills in the backstory leading up to this cataclysmic event. The third book, The Sea thy Mistress, is scheduled for release in October 2010.
For over 500 years, the Children of the Light (other than the outcast Mingan, the Wolf) have lived together in Valdygard where they follow their leader Strifbjorn. In spite of his status with the other Children, Strifbjorn is rather fond of Mingan, who does visit Valdygard for major events including the wedding that the historian Muire recalls as the beginning of the end. For after the wedding, Strifbjorn found what appeared to be a nearly dead mortal woman washed up on the shore. However, it soon becomes apparent that she is no mortal as the woman defeats warriors with an uncanny strength. She claims to be the Lady they have been waiting for, and the Children of the Light are then divided, leading to the events the previous novel began with.
The narrative in By the Mountain Bound is divided among three perspectives: that of the Wolf, Mingan; the Historian, Muire; and the Warrior, Strifbjorn. Mingan and Muire’s parts are both told in the first person, but Strifbjorn’s sections are told in the third person. This seems fitting as Mingan and Muire both seem to be more central characters, particularly Mingan who was the most prominent one of the three and my favorite to read about (although Muire was a close second).
Bear is not easy on her characters and all three have it pretty rough, especially Mingan. Mingan is feared by all the einherjar and valkyrie with the exception of Strifbjorn. When he shows up at the wedding, Muire ends up having to serve him because nobody else will go near him, and even she runs away once she has given him his drink. It’s hard not to feel sorry for Mingan when reading the parts told from his perspective. Although she is not an outcast, Muire does not seem to quite fit in with the other valkyries since she is more of a scholar than a warrior. Like most of the valkyries, Muire is in love with Strifbjorn, who is not particularly keen on choosing a wife even though he is expected to. Of course, those who have read All the Wind-wracked Stars know that it will only get worse for Muire at the end. Strifbjorn may seem to have it pretty good as a leader loved by his people, but even he is haunted by expectations and past mistakes.
The pacing is somewhat slow since there is a lot of time spent on the world and characters. It’s one of those books in which one is thrust right into the story and may feel a little lost at first. There’s a rare subtlety, and personally I love the fact that Bear treats her readers like they are intelligent people who do not need everything spelled out for them (and as you read more, it becomes much clearer). After reading this novel, I suspect that I’d get more from a reread of All the Wind-wracked Stars, which is another reason I love not being told all the details about everything right up front. All the layers make it far more interesting and a better candidate for reading multiple times.
The language and writing are lovely – it’s not dense but it is still descriptive and packed with emotion. Bear did post some excerpts from the beginning on her blog so I’d suggest anyone who is interested check those out:
By the Mountain Bound is one of those books that appeals to me since it has so many of my favorite story elements – the basis in mythology, the broken characters, the beautiful writing, and the subtlety and layers. It was even more enjoyable than All the Wind-wracked Stars or even any of the other novels I’ve read by Elizabeth Bear, and learning about the events leading up to the previous volume added new depth to it.
Where I got my reading copy: I received a copy from the publisher.