The Mountain's Call
The Mountain’s Call is the first Luna release by author Judith Tarr, writing as Caitlin Brennan. While it’s a decent read, the author never really invites the reader into the world she creates. This keeps readers at a distance and unable to become fully immersed in the story.
In the author’s fantasy world, gods in the form of white horses live on an isolated Mountain. Every spring a magical Call goes out to young men throughout the kingdom who possess a special magic, beckoning them to come to the Mountain. There, they can attend a special school to become Riders, the elite few chosen to work with the gods and ride them in the Dance. (The Dance is too difficult to explain, especially since the author doesn’t explain it very well so I don’t think I could if I tried.)
A young girl named Valeria dreams of becoming a Rider, but she knows that women are never called to the Mountain. Then one spring she feels the mystical urge to travel there and knows she has received the Call. Disguising herself as a boy, she leaves home and travels far to the Mountain. She soon proves to be the most talented student the school has seen in a long time. But after she passes the test to become a Rider and is accepted by the gods, her secret is revealed.
The teachers know that they cannot cast her out now that the gods have shown they accept her, but they’re also unwilling to let a woman be a rider. It’s simply not allowed. So Valeria becomes the ward of a demanding and arrogant senior Rider named Kerrec. She knows that she deserves so much more, but this is the only way that she is allowed to remain near the gods, so she has to accept it. Then a young barbarian named Euan takes note of her predicament. He quickly moves to take advantage of Valeria’s magic, figuring that if the Riders will not make use of her skill, he can win her to his side in his bid to destroy the Empire.
If that sounds confusing, then you’re not the only one who thinks so. That’s the most sense I could make out of the author’s murky storytelling. Her world is densely imagined, but she often doesn’t bother to try and explain it to the reader. The author writes with a matter-of-factness that almost seems to assume the reader is familiar with this world, dropping names and concepts without bothering to explain them. I only somewhat understood much of it, enough to follow the story but not nearly enough to get caught up in it. There’s the Empire and the Barbarians want to take over for some reason. I got that much, but any deeper understanding of the players and motivations escaped me. I had far too many questions that never received answers. As a result, the story is moderately interesting without really engaging the reader in the tale.
The author’s writing does have a magical feel to it that fits this enchanted world. She often creates lovely images, and there are some sections of the story that come alive. But the story shifts back and forth between compelling moments and those that are not because of the characters’ flatness. Often I would be caught up in a scene, then bored and confused in the next. That’s how too much of the book went. It works well when dealing on a smaller scale, the little sequences that really capture a particular moment. The scenes where Valeria first comes to the school, meets her fellow students, and faces the tasks put before them, are very effective. Scenes that deal with the overall storyline aren’t, because the bigger picture remains murky and vague.
The book does feature a romance, one that unfolds according to pure formula. There’s the arrogant hero and the self-sacrificing heroine. Eventually, the Big Misunderstanding arrives that causes one to hate the other. But the characters aren’t any better developed than the world they live in. Valeria has some surface traits but she’s hollow at her center. We know she has an incredible amount of power and she wants to be a Rider, but those are about the only concrete elements of her character. Often her motivations aren’t explained very well, so there’s too little reason for her actions, other than they’re required by the plot. I could never get a handle on who exactly she was deep down. The two main male characters are somewhat better, but only because their motivations are much more simplistic and their personalities clear-cut.
Nowhere on the cover or introductory pages is there any indication that this is anything other than a standalone book, but after reading 450 pages I found this waiting for me on the last page: “So ends the 1st part of White Magic. Look for the continuation of battle next year.” I think I’ll pass. This was a very long 450 pages, not because there’s anything wrong with the story, but because I could never get caught up in it. If 450 pages couldn’t do it, I doubt another book could do any better.