By the Mountain Bound
by Elizabeth Bear
Cover Artist: Jean-Sabastien Rossbach
Review by Sam Lubell
Tor Books Hardcover ISBN/ITEM#: 9780765318831
Date: 27 October 2009 List Price $25.99 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /
Elizabeth Bear's By the Mountain Bound is the prequel to All the Windwracked Stars which combined far future science fiction with Norse mythology infused fantasy to good effect. But By the Mountain Bound is a much more conventional fantasy novel with no science fictional elements. It simply builds on the backstory already revealed in the previous novel. Still fans of the first book will certainly want to learn more about the waelcyrge (valkyrie) Muire, the Historian; Mingan, the Grey Wolf; and Strifbjorn,the warrior-leader of the Children of the Light, warrior-angels in a land that exists after the Norse myths have ended. The Children of the Light have the job of avenging the fallen.
The novel begins when Strifbjorn discovers a half-drowned woman, who claims to be the long-prophesied Lady of the Children of Light, who warns of an upcoming war with the Aesir (giants). Her claim seems to be supported by the mystical Banner behind the Lady's throne that displays a portent of war and victory. Strifbjorn summons Mingan, who spends most of his time living with a family of wolves, but has a secret homosexual relationship with Strifbjorn, that, if known, would disqualify him for his position as leader. Gradually Mingan learns that the Lady is, like himself, a survivor of the old world. Mingan used to be the Wolf Fenris, the eater of the sun. Meanwhile, Muire, who secretly longs for Strifbjorn, has found out about his relationship with Mingan.
The Lady soon upsets the traditions of the Children of Light, saying that the mortals should pay them tribute in souls. She also tries to divide Mingan from Strifbjorn and seize leadership herself. When Muire discovers that one of the waelcyrge has sucked the life out of mortals, becoming tarnished, there is a challenge of leadership won by the Lady when she exposes the full extent of Strifbjorn's relationship with Mingan. This divides the Children of Light, leading to Civil War after a few discover the Lady's manipulations through illusions.
When Mingan's wolf family is slaughtered by villagers, Mingan kills them all and joins the Lady's side in the conflict. Of course, the suspense over who will win and who survive is somewhat lessened for readers who read the previous book. Still the book is more about the characters and their intertwined relationships as it is about battles and myths.
Prequels generally create a problem of which order to read the books – the internal chronology or the order in which the books were published. Here, I recommend the order of publication – in part because All the Windwracked Stars is the better book, but also some of the surprises of that book are revealed in By the Mountain Bound. What appears in All the Windwracked Stars to be a more mythic confrontation seems somewhat more petty here. Certainly Mingan seems more like another one of the einherjar rather than the Sun Eater of Stars. However, it makes sense that the young Muire seems far more uncertain of herself than she does in the book set in the far future.