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: