Review: Mammoths at the Gates by Nghi Vo

Review: Mammoths at the Gates by Nghi VoMammoths at the Gates (The Singing Hills Cycle, #4) by Nghi Vo
Format: eARC
Source: supplied by publisher via Edelweiss
Formats available: hardcover, ebook, audiobook
Genres: fantasy
Series: Singing Hills Cycle #4
Pages: 123
Published by Tordotcom on September 12, 2023
Purchasing Info: Author's WebsitePublisher's WebsiteAmazonBarnes &

The Hugo and Crawford Award-Winning Series!
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. . .
The novellas of The Singing Hills Cycle are linked by the cleric Chih, but may be read in any order, with each story serving as an entrypoint.

My Review:

When the Cleric Chih returns home to the Singing Hills Abbey after three years on the road collecting stories, they are astonished to discover that there really are mammoths at the gates of the abbey. It’s not exactly like saying there are barbarians at the gates – but as Chih learns it’s not exactly unlike, either.

Because in the stories that the clerics of the Singing Hills Abbey collect, mammoths ALWAYS come at the end. After they’ve trampled everyone and everything that stood in their way.

So Cleric Chih already knows that something terrible has happened even before they walk through the gates of the Abbey. And it doesn’t take them long to learn at least the tip of the iceberg of the rest.

Discovering that under the trumpeting of mammoths, it’s grief and stories all the way down.

The abbey is virtually empty, as most of the chroniclers and archeologists rushed to the site of a temporarily uncovered village, located in a valley that has been flooded for years, has been temporarily and briefly unflooded, and will be flooded again in just a few short months. Stories are what the Singing Hills Abbey is, and what it does, and there have been stories sunken in that village for decades that won’t survive the re-flooding.

So away they went.

In their absence, Chih’s best friend Ru has been made temporary Abbot, making the divide between the two lifelong friends even deeper than it has been, as Chih’s duty is to leave the Abbey to gather stories, while Ru, disabled in childhood by disease, is left behind to learn how to administer the place.

Which he is, and has, but…nearly the first thing that happened after most of the abbey’s population was out of reach was the death of the most senior cleric, Cleric Thien. Thien was both Chih’s and Ru’s mentor and father-figure. But before he became a Cleric, Thien was a high-ranking advocate (read lawyer) in the Empire.

Thien was disowned by his family and stripped of his imperial status when he became a Cleric. But the mammoths at the gate demonstrate that someone official, at least, has not forgotten Thien’s imperial service. And now they want him back. Dead or alive.

Escape Rating A+: I love the Singing Hills Cycle, and have from its very beginning in The Empress of Salt and Fortune. At first, it seemed like this series was a bit of an exercise in mythmaking, fantasy not because there’s any particular magical system, but because it feels like fantasy and doesn’t fit, neatly or otherwise, into any other box.

Also the writing is utterly lovely every step of the way, and it’s easy to get caught up in Cleric Chih’s world and the stories in it, even if we’re never quite sure whether or not it has any relationship to our own. There’s magic in these stories, they’re magically compelling, and that’s all that’s necessary to make for a captivating read.

Howsomever, while each story is complete in and of itself, the series as a whole is Chih’s literal journey around their world to learn and record the stories they find in that world, and that overarching frame provides a vehicle for telling fantastic adventures.

One of the fascinating points about that overarching story is the way that Chih began very much on the periphery of it. In The Empress of Salt and Fortune, Chih seemed merely to be the vessel into which the handmaiden Rabbit poured her tale of the Empress that she served, loved and hated, all at the same time, while Chih was there to make a record of it and explicitly not become a part of it.

But the following stories, When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain and Into the Riverlands, nudged Chih towards the center, as they spend the night When the Tiger Came Down the Mountain telling the tiger of the tale the tale of the tiger as it is remembered among humans, in the hope that said tiger won’t eat them and their companions before morning. While in Into the Riverlands it almost seems as if the tale is happening around them even as the villagers tell that tale to Chih.

The tale in Mammoths at the Gates is Chih’s own story, it’s happening TO them as we read it. It’s a story about love and loss, a story about friendship and compromise, and a story about growing up and letting go.

It’s also a heartbreakingly beautiful tale of a truth that sets no one free, and a love that both transcends and transforms death.

This was my second read of Mammoths at the Gates, and it was even better this second time around, as I had more time to savor it. I didn’t want to leave Chih and their world when I turned that final page, and I’m happy to say that I won’t be. I picked up the audio of Into the Riverlands, which I read when it came out but didn’t review here, because I wanted a chance to experience the Singing Hills Cycle as it feels like it’s meant to be, as a story being told and recorded.

AND, and I’m oh-so-happy about this, a fifth book in the Singing Hills Cycle, The Brides of High Hill, just popped up on Edelweiss last night as coming out in May, 2024. I’m thrilled and already looking forward to it!

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