Blog

Review of The Mountains of Sorrow by Iseult Murphy

Iseult Murphy first left her mark upon me with her insightful reviews. Here was someone who wasn’t simply stating an opinion, but actually going a level deeper to incise the work she was discussing with a scalpel and see what was really going on underneath; in short, true criticism. Next, Murphy’s Horror series, currently featuring 7 Days In Hell and 7 Weeks In Hell, blew me away. Here is a story that deceptively lures the reader into thinking they are reading a small-town cosy mystery, when in actuality something much darker is taking place. The story slowly tilts into the macabre until it outright flings you into the abyss, though it is not without threads of beautiful hope.

Now, Iseult Murphy turns her hand to Fantasy—a favourite genre of mine—in The Mountains of Sorrow. This novella is a weird and wonderful mix. It starts by plunging us straight into the action and doesn’t really let up for the duration of its 100 pages. Our main character, Rowan, is a rebel with a mission to assassinate an evil and tyrannical Queen. There is a subtle critique of the modern world in the lore and mythos of Mountains of Sorrow, as the Queen is evil because she uses Star Magic to oppress the populace. Star Magic is a kind of forbidden, dark magic, because it’s technological rather than natural. The Star Magic allows Queen Zelda to create artificial lights that burn the skin, monstrous metal golems that lumber through the palace hallways, and energy centres that irradiate the populace and make them sick. It’s subtly done, a kind of Gene Wolfe double-blind where we realise that what’s being described isn’t what we think it is. Don’t worry, this isn’t a spoiler, there’re a lot more surprises in this.

The world-building, contained in such a brief narrative, is very impressive. Rowan is a wood-witch, one of the last of her kind, and so she has an affinity for the earth, magic, and the seven sacred dragons. The dragons are kind of druidic gods who watch over and guide those who are still connected to magic. Each of them can grant different boons. In this way, they operate almost like Catholic Saints; appealing to the right saint with the right cause can lend a magic-user aid. It feels original, and more importantly it’s done well; the naming conventions of the dragons lead me to believe they are partly inspired by Irish lore and mythology. There’s surprising depth considering how little wiggle room Murphy has in a story of this length.

In terms of characters, this story is again an interesting mix. It personally took me a while to warm to the main character Rowan. I found her to be so bitter and depressive that it was hard to feel for her. However, given everything Rowan has experienced, this was probably very psychologically accurate. Argento proved to be an interesting foil to Rowan, and the two work well together “on screen”. Murphy does not fall for the usual traps of a relationship of necessity like this, and if any of you are expecting predictable romance, rest assured you can think again.

There are a surprising number of characters considering the book’s length but perhaps the final ones worth mentioning are two very cute squirrels, Acorn and Oak. The book actually contains beautiful illustrations of these squirrels done by the author herself, and her talent is really off-the-charts. The interior of the book is exceedingly beautiful because of these illustrations, which also make their way into the chapter headings (very much echoing the illuminated text of medieval manuscripts) The inclusion of these squirrel characters is one of the brilliant but also anomalous aspects of the books. Murphy clearly has a love of animals. I know she keeps many pets and dogs feature prominently in her 7 Hells series. Cute squirrels, who are far more intelligent than they seem, would seem to lend the book more of a Disney-fantasy than let’s say Tolkien-fantasy vibe. Indeed, I wondered if this book was meant for children at times. The writing is straightforward; there is no cussing.

However, it seems that Murphy could not resist flexing her Horror-writer muscles at times, and there are some genuinely disturbing scenes in this that are worthy of a Stephen King novel or indeed something beyond. If you are looking for a literary comparison, the nearest would be C. S. Lewis. Lewis also created wonderful and enchanting fantasy worlds for children, but they were not without their share of horror, as anyone who read that scene in The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe can testify.

When the true extent of the evil Queen’s machinations are revealed in one stomach churning encounter, I was caught completely off guard, and that made the horror all the more affecting and visceral. I admire Murphy for this. It would have been easy for her to write something pedestrian, something that conformed easily to a genre archetype, but she chose instead to push boundaries, to show us that even in the magical world there is suffering. In fact, this suffering is created by the intrusion of technological “magic” into the fantastical sphere. I will not preach to the choir: you may read into this as you will!

The last thing I want to say about this book is in relation to the title. Firstly, The Mountains of Sorrow clues us in to one of the interesting aspects of this book, namely, that I suspect it is part of a series. This book seems entirely concerned with the element of earth, and that includes not just literal stone, soil, and wood, but also the concepts of family, friendship, and the stability of civilisation. I suspect that Murphy might be planning to showcase the other elements in subsequent books! We can only hope.

Secondly, The Mountains of Sorrow feels very apt indeed. Sorrow permeates this story. Rowan has lost her mother. Argento has lost his family. The magical dragons seem to be leaving this world of wickedness and technologic gods. The “mountains” of sorrow are the psychological mountains that we must perilously climb in order to overcome our despair. What is so brilliant, however, is that Murphy’s ending is spiritual, redemptive, and hopeful, which, in our current era, is exactly what we need.

You can purchase The Mountains of Sorrow at the links below:

Amazon UK

Amazon US

Blog

Review of Iseult Murphy’s 7 Weeks In Hell

7 Weeks In Hell is the sequel to Iseult Murphy’s outstanding slow-burn horror gem 7 Days In HellYou’ll notice, from the naming conventions of those two titles, a reference to the 28 Days Later series, and this is apt, because 7 Days In Hell and its sequel are zombie narratives with a difference. During the early 2000s, there was a proliferation of zombie novels, games, graphic novels, movies, and of course one particularly mega TV series, which led to what might be described as “zombie burn out”. However, when done well, I believe that the zombie subgenre still has a lot to offer, and Iseult Murphy’s zombie-narrative is certainly anything but conventional. 

7 Days In Hell was also a “creepy town” tale, in the vein of The Wicker Man or perhaps more appropriately H. P. Lovecraft’s A Shadow Over Innsmouth. We follow twin sisters Vicky and Irene on a much-needed getaway from the horrors of the modern world in the remote town of Basard. However, they soon discover that something is deeply amiss. What seemed a cosy tale, akin to a murder mystery, quickly escalated beyond all my expectations – going into the realm of the dark occult – and leading to a catastrophic finale. The final image or “stinger” in 7 Days In Hell was simply hair-raising, and made me impatient to read the inevitable sequel. 

In the style of Hollywood sequels, the settings and sweep of 7 Weeks in Hell have a much larger budget. We’re now in the urban city of Galway, where Vicky has moved in order to get away from her family and inner demons. One of the main focuses of 7 Weeks In Hell is the fallout, both psychological and otherwise, from those events in Basard. In many ways, Vicky isn’t even sure that what happened was real, and her slew of counsellors and consolers support this belief that she’s mentally unstable. Iseult Murphy accurately and sensitively portrays the paranoia and anxiety of a traumatised mind as we follow Vicky battling against her memories, her desire to act, but her terror of what will happen if she steps outside into the real world. 

Mixed in with this psychological framework is an undercurrent of spiritual commentary on the modern world, a sense that the “zombies” are only a metaphor for what we become when we abandon our most human aspect: our spiritual self, our soul. These zombies are not so much infected disease-carriers (one cannot be infected via a bite), they are supernatural slaves, serving the bidding of a dark master. They only go frenzied and eat flesh when their master loses control of them, which brings me to the most interesting part of the novel, or at least the part that captured me the most: the Dark One. This character – whom I can’t reveal the name of as it would be a spoiler – is a fascinating study in evil, and they go on an immense and surprising character arc. Not only that, but we see the introduction of a new foil to them, a protege, if you will, who proves to be almost worse than the original. The toxic and frightening dynamic between the two felt like entirely new narrative ground for the series. The previous novel did not explore the perspective of evil in such depth, but Iseult Murphy here plumbs the thought-processes, and even some of the magical mechanisms of occult practice, in order to fully convey the horror – and let’s be honest, the fascination – of total evil. There are more than a few shades of Clive Barker emerging in Murphy’s work, particularly The Great and Secret Show.

7 Weeks In Hell is a step up from its already impressive predecessor in so many ways: the character development, writing style, the scale and scope, and the deeper philosophical commentary running through it which seems to hit home a lot harder than the first book, perhaps due to the city setting. Whilst 7 Days In Hell was surprisingly disturbing, catching one off-guard, Iseult Murphy manages to pull the rug out from under us yet again, with a disturbing turn of events towards the close of the novel that has almost unthinkable implications, as well as parallels with the corruption of Hollywood and TV culture. Iseult Murphy remakes old tropes, and wields these tropes in service of her themes with precision elegance. 

Iseult Murphy once wrote of one of my own novels “There is a sadness that pervades this book” and I believe the same could be said of her novel. Repeatedly, characters reflect that it is the better-person, the better-friend, and symbolically the better part of themselves, that has been lost, and the survivors are there to carry on the story: but they don’t know how. There is a sense of grieving throughout, and hardship, and loneliness; only loyal and lovable dogs alleviate the latter somewhat. This is not a hero narrative. It is a book where evil is a reality of life, and it must be faced and resisted, though this increasingly becomes difficult. One gets the sense of a mind subjected to tremendous pressure and temptation, strong enough not to give in, but not strong enough to send the darkness back from whence it came. There is something haunting in that, and over and above the zombies, this is the true horror of the book. 

I would say that this is an almost flawless book, save for the ending, which – without giving it away – leaves a bit too much to the reader in my humble view. However, anyone who has read my blogs or books will know that I am very particular about my endings, so it may simply be that it didn’t conform to my taste or expectations. Ultimately, the journey of this novel is quite incredible, with many surprises in store for even jaded readers; I’ll be first in line to get a copy of book 3! 


If you enjoyed this review of this occult novel, then appropriately you can sign can sign up to the Mind-Vault as either a “Thrall” or “Cultist”, and get access to secret knowledge from beyond the stars. This March (2021), there is going to be a detailed workshop on “Character Motivation”. Don’t miss out! Your Mindflayer overlord compels you…