REVIEW: Mammoths at the Gates (The Singing Hills Cycle Book 4) by Nghi Vo
The wandering Cleric Chih returns home to the Singing Hills Abbey for the first time in almost three years, to be met with both joy and sorrow. Their mentor, Cleric Thien, has died, and rests among the archivists and storytellers of the storied abbey. But not everyone is prepared to leave them to their rest.
Because Cleric Thien was once the patriarch of Coh clan of Northern Bell Pass–and now their granddaughters have arrived on the backs of royal mammoths, demanding their grandfather’s body for burial. Chih must somehow balance honoring their mentor’s chosen life while keeping the sisters from the north from storming the gates and destroying the history the clerics have worked so hard to preserve.
But as Chih and their neixin Almost Brilliant navigate the looming crisis, Myriad Virtues, Cleric Thien’s own beloved hoopoe companion, grieves her loss as only a being with perfect memory can, and her sorrow may be more powerful than anyone could anticipate. . .
Dear Nghi Vo,
I started and finished this novella in one day. As soon as I ended it I thought, I’m not quite sure what that all was but it was brilliant. My book notes state “A story of Singing Hills, young novices, justice, and the way life changes.”
Cleric Chih is returning home to their abbey of Singing Hills after being gone for three years collecting stories and information to add to the immense archives stored there. As they near home, having made it past the candle ghosts and echo spirits that might or might not haunt the way, they realize things are not going to be what they were expecting. There are mammoths at the gates and not the smaller ones Cleric Chih has seen and been around before. No, these are the giant, royal mammoths that are capable of demolishing a fortress by the count of sixty.
Inside the Abbey are more changes. Most of the archivists and clerics are off doing on-site information gathering elsewhere and Chih’s old friend, who was a novice cleric with them, is the acting Divine. More startling is when Ru tells them that this is what Ru wants to keep doing as due to an injury, they can’t leave to collect stories. Also Cleric Thien, beloved to them both and to the abbey has died. Cleric Thien’s neixin, Myriad Virtues, is grieving, too, while Almost Brilliant is both proud to show off her daughter and hectoring Cleric Chih about what’s going on. There are lots of swirling emotions even before the need to keep the peace with Cleric Thien’s granddaughters who have come, along with their immense mammoths, to claim the body.
After hearing about the Singing Hills abbey through the earlier three novellas, it’s nice to finally “see” it. I would advise new readers to go back and inhale the first novellas before starting here as we are dropped into the action with bits and pieces of backstory about Cleric Chih, Almost Brilliant, and the mission of the abbey.
There is so much story packed into the short number of pages here and yet, all that needs to be there is there. Names and places are casually dropped into the narrative without much more being said but what is told is all we need to know. I could see a thousand different novellas being spun off of what is mentioned but as this novella is not about those stories, I’m fine with how things are handled.
As with the other novellas, storytelling is at the heart of what happens. At the remembrance ceremony for Cleric Thien, those left at the abbey and the granddaughters plus their attendants, gather to tell something about Cleric Thien with the neixin listening in to commit it all to memory. New facets of Thein are revealed before a story busts up the event – but only after giving a glimpse of why the granddaughters are really here. Myriad Virtues tells her own story after most everyone has left.
Change is also a major part of the story. Chih has returned thinking that everything will be the same. Many things are, which is comforting, but not everything. New realities must be navigated and accepted. Life is change, after all. In the end, a new normal is coming into being while a pathway to maintaining good relations with those who command massive mammoths is found. Justice will be done and a grieving neixin will find some peace. A