Why go to all this trouble for us? You are surely treading a treasonous path. (p. 103)
It has taken me a long time to read this book. And not because I was savoring every word. Indeed, no; the reason it took me over three months to get from the first page to the last has to do with the fact that reading From Mountains of Ice is a physically painful experience. One frequently meets with the desire to bang one's head against the wall, in the course of reading, in order to relieve one's feelings. But, after application of a strong dose of self-motivation—and with a dispensary bottle of paracetamol on hand—I finally sat down one night and fought my way through to the end.
My overall feelings can be expressed with this cat GIF.
From Mountains of Ice came out in 2009 from Canadian micro-press Five Rivers Chapmanry. Today, Five Rivers maintains that it "is committed to producing quality books that have benefited from the scrutiny of a good editor." But the first and perhaps the most severe of my problems with From Mountains of Ice is its lack of willingness to abide by the usual conventions of English-language punctuation. Particularly where it comes to commas.
a fluid list of titles and salutations, professions of greatest love and longing, veiled accusations of betrayal through Sylvio's absence, enforced though it might have been, earnest wishes to redress absence. Just the fact Carmelo singled him out was fraught with potential, none of it with hope. (p. 75)
Phrases, especially descriptive phrases, come tacked together with commas when it would be more comprehensible (and less horribly irritating) to use more than one sentence. Several sentences have more commas than they need. Several suffer from a mysterious dearth of commas, where a comma would have added to comprehensibility or to the ordinary flow of prose.
Carried by the outgoing tide they'd be swept out to sea, just as she. (p. 107)
We shall not speak of the staccato sentence fragments. Or that comma-splice incident. Or the clouds running out the window (p. 108), or the falling sky. No, indeed: let us pass on instead to Stephens's ability to tell a story more generally.
Sylvio is a former minister from the court of Simare, beloved by both court and populace in his time. When the heir to Simare's crown, Carmelo, comes to power, Sylvio is stripped of his lands and offices and banished to his native village. Married to the strega Aletta, there he becomes a bowyer and learns to work with the bones of the dead, through which Simari ancestors speak. Meanwhile, Carmelo has been raising taxes and bungling relations with Simare's more powerful neighbor, Breena. (The capital of Simare is called Reena. Yes, really.) These neighbors are now on the point of taking over. But the Breenai ambassador, Maponos Ó Leannáin*, believes in peace and, together with Prima Violina of Almarè, has a plan to spirit Sylvio and Aletta away so that they can return at the head of an army and revitalize Simare.
That is, if I have followed the gist of From Mountains of Ice's intentions. It was sometimes a little hard to tell what it was doing, since it would say one thing and apparently mean quite another. Like when it referred to the old "let's dress someone else up in your clothes" trick as a "very elaborate ruse":
And so now we begin a very elaborate ruse. My handmaid will join us presently. You and she will exchange clothing. She will travel with your maid back to the Casa Portelli. You, disguised as my maid, will accompany me back to my ship. By the time Carmelo discovers you are gone we will be well out to sea. (p. 104)
But matters go awry. Sylvio is captured in a copse of "men almost corpses, piked and left to die" by Carmelo's men, tattooed all over his body, and let go. Apparently all-over tattooing is a Very Terrible Thing, and Sylvio feels shame and body-horror to such an extent that, believing he can never go home again, he resolves to divorce his wife and give up his life. Eventually, rather than leading an army of men back into Simare, he leads an army of ancestors, deposes Carmelo, and institutes a republic ruled by both the living and the dead.
This might have been effectively creepy, had Stephens troubled to give some context on the nature of Simare's dead, or made it clear why anyone should care. (Indeed, the subtitle of this review could have been, "And why should I care?")
An addiction to telling as opposed to showing, and overuse of the passive voice ("There was an urgent need to use the privy"), combine to cripple any narrative power From Mountains of Ice ever hoped to possess. And it is probably best not to speak of characterization, which wobbles wildly from one extreme to another.
As for worldbuilding . . .
From the clothes, weapons, modes of transport, and names, one receives the impression that From Mountains of Ice situates itself in an Italianate Renaissance-esque milieu. But characters in this milieu think in terms of "social security nets" (p. 100), water purification tablets, antibiotics, staying "in contact" with an outpost while traveling to it by carriage and without couriers ever being mentioned, and other such suspension-of-disbelief-puncturing things. It is entirely possible to combine modern ideas with pre-modern backdrops, but it requires thought and care to integrate the two. Thought and care, needless to say, which are lacking here.
From Mountains of Ice is not a reading experience I'd recommend. There are better books out there. Many, many better books.
Do yourself a favor and avoid this one.
* Mixing P-Celtic and Q-Celtic names makes my head hurt. Maponos is the name of a Gaulish (language group: P-Celtic) deity whom the Romans equated with Apollo. Ó Leannáin is a Gaelic-Irish (language group: Q-Celtic) surname common in Fermanagh, Galway, and Mayo, often Anglicised as Lannon, Lennon, or Leonard. If you're going to play with "Celtic" names, this reviewer would like to beseech you to attempt some consistency. Think of the children!