I’m a fan of Norse mythology, and I really liked reading Thor comics (among others) when I was a boy. That’s why, when I saw By the Mountain Bound, Elizabeth Bear’s latest novel, and read the synopsis saying that it dealt with Norse mythology, I jumped at the chance to read and review this prequel to her bestselling fantasy novel All the Windwracked Stars, which I haven’t read. I thought that, since By the Mountain Bound is a prequel, it shouldn’t matter much as to influencing my review one way or the other.
By the Mountain Bound takes place after the fall of Valdygard and the old gods, including Odin, the all-Father, Thor, Baldur, Loki, and the rest. Yet some remnants of the old order survived and made it to our world at some time in the distant past. The novel is told through the points of view of some of these children of Light, or einherjar, and Muire (also a child of the Light), one of the valkyries, or waelcyrges (at any rate, I think these terms are synonymous with each other - the book doesn’t positively come right out and say that they are, though). Muire is known in the subsections of chapters depicting her point of view as “The Historian”: it’s her duty to write down the histories of the einherjars and waelcyrges. Her subsections are told in the first person. The subsections titled “The Warrior” tell parts of the story through the third-person point of view of Strifbjorn, leader of the einherjars. “The Wolf” subsections are from the first-person viewpoint of Mingan, also known as the Grey Wolf.
Mingan is the most interesting and complex character in the novel. He is not really an einherjar, but he is a being of the old world, of Valdygard. He used to have the shape of a wolf; now in the form of a man, he is torn between his wolf-like nature and that of an einherjar, or maybe a demigod. He’s like the wolf Fenris (it could be that he’s actually synonymous with Fenris), and he has a ribbon collar around his throat that cuts into him, which he can’t get off despite being more powerful than the other einherjars. He is also called the Suneater, because he ate a sun and the all-Father before being tied up. The ribbon collar was his punishment, and it’s said that one day he will be at Ragnorak and help bring about he end of the world. Mingan is feared by all, even the einherjar: he is strong, powerful, and sometimes unpredictable. He is also, however, kind to humans in trouble, such as victims of assault - until later in the novel, when his adopted wolf pack is slaughtered by humans.
An unexpected plot element for me was that Mingan is also Strifbjorn’s homosexual lover, surprising to me because I hadn’t read or heard any mention of this in descriptions of the novel. The sex scenes are handled well, not being overly graphic, but this aspect of the narrative may not be every reader’s cup of tea – especially for those expecting a straightforward action-packed novel involving characters from Norse mythology doing hero-like things like going on quests and fighting for Truth, Justice, and the Norse way of life.
Incorporating themes of love, betrayal, jealousy, the plot weaves together the slaughter of innocent wolves and people, usurpation of power, infighting among the einherjars, and a possible upcoming war against the giants. A mysterious woman washes up on shore, nearly drowned, and Strifbjorn gives her CPR - the breath of life. The breath of the einherjars can be used for killing people as well, similar to how succubae act, sucking the souls from the bodies of humans and even other einherjars, but this is generally considered to be against their code of morality and ethics, except during times of war.
It’s soon revealed that this woman Heythe is not a mortal and is potentially a Lady prophesied to arrive one day to lead the einherjar in battle. She brings with her the banner of a Raven, posed in a way that suggests (according to the prophesy) that they will ultimately be successful in the war to come - a war against the terrible giants responsible for destroying Valdygard and who pursue her still, attempting to wipe out the children of the Light wherever they may be found. But is she telling the truth, or is she lying about her motive for trying to take over the role of leader from Strifbjorn?
By the Mountain Bound flows by at a fast pace, like a mountain river during the spring melts. It’s a tragic tale: Mingan, who originally seems to be a heroic figure, pledges his loyalty to the Lady, and war breaks out among the einherjars. His sister, the vampire-like creature (though she has feathers as well as fur) Imogen, who is always hungry for blood, could easily sway the outcome of the war if Mingan but gives the word. The question is whether or not he will unleash her against the previous love of his life, Strifbjorn, and that tension helps to convincingly propel the narrative.
If you’ve already read All the Windwracked Stars, you’ll either know or have a pretty good idea of the ultimate outcome. There can be neither winners nor losers, really, when brothers and sisters are pitted against each other
in battle. I also wondered why the Grey Wolf either didn’t eat the Lady earlier in the novel, when he was on Strifbjorn’s side, or have his sister Imogen kill her to end the Lady’s attempts to usurp power. He was able to eat the all-Father, whom one would presume to be harder to eat than a lesser goddess like Heythe. If for whatever reason he couldn’t kill her by eating her, then Imogen could - but then there wouldn’t be much of a story.
Aside from some niggling questions about why the conflict couldn’t have been resolved some other way and about Bear’s decision to make Strifbjorn and Mingan’s overt sexuality such a prominent part
of the plot, By the Mountain Bound is a page-turning read recommended to anyone who likes fantasy novels filled with suspense and action. From what I know of All the Windwracked Stars,
it seems like it may be even better than this prequel. Elizabeth Bear is one of today’s brightest lights and best fantasy authors, and she immerses the reader in the world of Norse mythology with her poetic writing style.