There are any number of neat, one-sentence ways to sum up Rachel Fellman's The Breath of the Sun. You could describe it as a cross between Sofia Samatar's A Stranger in Olondria (2013), Ursula K. Le Guin's The Left Hand of Darkness (1969), and Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air (1997). You could sum it up as a fantasy-world fictionalization of the first summit of Everest, in which Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay are both women, and one of them is a wizard. And you could even make an argument for the book as a Nabokovian meta-narrative, in which both the narrator and her first and only reader try to puzzle out what actually happened, juxtaposing the story with later observations and documentary evidence.
These are all accurate descriptions—and, I hope, enticing ones. But they don't quite do The Breath of the Sun justice. A novel which is this much its own thing (and it is remarkable to think that this is Fellman's debut) deserves, one feels, much better than to be compared to the work of others, however much that comparison is intended as a compliment. And yet without those comparisons, it feels impossible to sum up what Fellman has done here. For such a short book, there's so much going on, so many topics touched on—history, science, religion, propaganda, empire—that it's hard to know where to start. It is, in other words, an edifice—which feels appropriate to a novel that is fundamentally about how people approach the inapproachable, by which I mean both features of geography, and of the divine.
Our narrator is Lamat Paed, a bar owner and occasional guide on the lower slopes of a mountain. The mountain has no name; it is simply "the mountain," and, as Lamat says, "not like anything except itself." It is holy to several religions. Lamat's people, the Holoh, believe that it is the body of god. They ascend it only on prescribed days, and only to a certain height. To go any further, they believe, would hurt and injure god. The other religions of the world (or at least, the ones we encounter) see the mountain as holy because their prophet, Asam, ascended it and disappeared, and tradition holds that he met god there. No one seems to know how tall the mountain is, except that it reaches beyond the planet's atmosphere. And no one has ever summited and returned to tell the tale.
As a young woman, Lamat and three friends made the impulsive, one might say mad, decision to try to climb as far as they could go. Two of them never made it back, and a third, Lamat's estranged husband, was excommunicated and forced to leave the village. Lamat was allowed to stay on the assumption that she had been pressured into the expedition; but, as we quickly learn, this wasn't entirely the case. She felt, and continues to feel, a profound need to climb, one that is rooted as much in religion as in sportsmanship:
"I grew up being told that God doesn't want us to climb. That we wound Them with our feet, that we blood Them with our fingernails. And that I'm not sure it's true. The Holoh are the only people who are visible to God. Why would They choose us, if not so that we could someday see Them face to face?"
After the ill-fated climb, Lamat wrote a book, Twelve Miles Up the Mountain, which became a bestseller and continues to draw tourists to the village (another reason she's been allowed to stay despite her transgression—religion is never a monolith, and its observation is never distinct from more prosaic concerns, in this novel or, indeed, in real life). It's also drawn to her a small stream of admirers, and it's the arrival of one of these, a defrocked priest named Disaine who belongs to an order of scientists, which kickstarts the novel's plot. Disaine arrives carrying technological innovations—hot air balloons, bottled oxygen, pressure suits—that might make survival on the higher slopes, and even summiting, possible, and she wants Lamat to guide her up.
Another way to put it is as Lamat does: "I wrote [Twelve Miles Up the Mountain] for the same reason I'm writing this one: to puzzle out the truth." Both books are an attempt to work out an event that upended Lamat's life, dividing it into before and after. In The Breath of the Sun, in particular, what she's trying to figure out is Disaine herself, the manipulations she enacted, the lies she told, and the truth that may have been at the root of it all. In the present day, the book is being read and commented on by Otile, Lamat's lover, who responds to the narrative in footnotes that include everything from her own perspective on the events she witnessed, to documents that contradict Lamat's recollections or the lies Disaine told her, to simple exclamations and responses like "Yes" or "Oh, my heart."
The crux of the narrative, however, is Lamat and Disaine's ascent, first an abortive attempt during which their equipment fails and they're caught in a storm, then a more successful one in which they reach a higher altitude than any known person has, and then the aftermath of that expedition, in which Disaine tries to use their newfound fame to fund an even more ambitious ascent, leaving Lamat behind.
I don't know if Fellman is a climber herself, but she does an excellent job of capturing the combination of uplift and despair that seems to accompany these sorts of climbing expeditions; how trudging through an almost entirely lifeless landscape that is constantly trying to kill you is simultaneously so tedious that you can't understand why you're doing it, and so all-consuming that it seems to give your life purpose beyond anything that the ground has to offer. The bond forged between Lamat and Disaine in this insane, monomaniacal expedition is one that transcends ordinary human relationships—as Lamat observes, “There is no intimacy like the intimacy of climbing ... It won't make friends of you, but it links you for good.” It proves unsurprisingly brittle back on the ground.
At the same time, her return to the mountain inspires Lamat to look back to her original, disastrous climb, and to the dysfunctional dynamics within the group that went up it, especially Lamat's neglect by her husband, and the growth of her attachment to the group's most inquisitive member, the outsider Courer.
Throughout these challenges, The Breath of the Sun remains perfectly perched between modernity and fantasy. It is a book in which things like publicity, fame, and politics determine the course of the story—Disaine is certain that she will get funding for her project from the new queen because “She's very interested in exploration, and she's very interested in the fate of women.” But it's also a book where magic exists; where the mountain, which seems increasingly impossible the more we see of it through Lamat's eyes, can exist. And it's a book where the nineteenth-century fascination with rationalism, the belief that anything can be puzzled out and systematized, keeps falling short, as Disaine learns when she tries to do science and learns that she is actually a magician:
"I would run experiments that seemed to be successful, present on them, write about them, but then nobody would ever be able to repeat them. The first time people saw it as bad luck. A good idea, but I had flaws in my process. But then it started happening again and again. All my atmospheric work, my work on gasses. Hours in the lab—building my experiments, writing them up. Everything would seem so clean and sweet. Completely within my grasp, and I knew that, this time, people would be able to understand it, be able to do it for themselves. But as soon as I put it out in the light, nobody could."
The Breath of the Sun is that rare fantasy novel that reminds us that stakes in this genre don't have to be world-destroying or matters of high politics. They can be as personal and ordinary as an expedition to do something that is objectively meaningless, and yet stirring and inspirational—like climbing a mountain. It's this that made me think of Samatar's Olondria, a novel that takes a fantasy-world empire and sets within it a travelogue, an emblem of modern middle-class living. Fellman does the same with the explorer's autobiography (Lamat has, after all, written two of these); but even in the midst of this familiar, homely format, there is a sense of the uncanny. Even when Lamat and Disaine are occupied with the simple business of survival (or its complications, such as the difficulties of going to the bathroom in Disaine's suits), there is a sense of the otherwordly in this book. The fact that you can never tell whether this is the otherworldliness of magic, or the otherworldliness of the lifeless, unwelcoming mountain, is a significant part of the novel's charm.
This is a balance that extends, too, to the novel's handling of religion. For both Disaine and Lamat, climbing the mountain is as much an act of devotion as it is a physical challenge or a feat of exploration. It’s here, however, that cracks begin to form between them, precisely because their attitudes towards the divine are so different. One can sense real-world parallels in how Fellman constructs his two religious traditions: the Holoh—persecuted, inward-facing, at once the chosen people and a relic of a bygone era, obsessed with quantifying and qualifying religious behavior ("The Holoh used to count it taboo even to touch the mountain. And believe me, we had rules about where the land stopped and the mountain started"), but also deeply argumentative about their religious practices; and the followers of Asam, who have fractured into dozens of sects, each of which has a different perspective on their savior (the novel's chapters each open with a quote from a different gospel, which seem to contradict each other at best, and to belong to completely different religions at worst), but all of whom venerate Asam for his selflessness, his gentleness, and his non-violence, without quite knowing what lessons to take from these qualities. Just when you think that you have the analogy figured out, however, Fellman throws you for a loop, reminding you that there is something foreign at the heart of the world she's constructed, as when Lamat observes to a passing priest:
"I'll never understand you. You think you've moved past having a God who has flesh, as if that's something you just graduate from. But if you divorce the spirit too much from the body, you lose your grip on everything."
The more we get to know Lamat and Disaine, the more we wonder whether their determination to climb the mountain is an act of religious worship, or of religious rebellion. This comes down, obviously, to their different religious views. Lamat never feels distant from god—"I saw my god every day, I trod on Them"—while Disaine feels abandoned by him—"If Asam was wise and Asam was kind and Asam was nice, then why did he leave us?". But it also comes down to their personalities. The reason that Disaine is able to manipulate Lamat, to get her to do things that are objectively mad, is the same reason that she could never be satisfied with Lamat's brand of religion. She's looking not for communion, but for revelation, and it's a disconnect between the two women that ultimately proves irresolvable.
It's rare for a fantasy novel to approach religion this way—not as a definitive answer (one with, perhaps, assertions that are objectively provable, even gods that can be seen and spoken to), but as a question that continues to plague and drive people, that reflects their personalities, and the culture they've grown up in, as much as it reflects on any deity, real or imagined. (Fellman was preceded slightly by Jeannette Ng, whose Under the Pendulum Sun (2017) takes a very different, but similarly thorny, approach to theology and religious faith.) And it's perhaps unsurprising that the conclusion The Breath of the Sun comes to is determinedly inconclusive. The things Lamat and Disaine want—from each other, from the mountain, from god—are too different for them to continue together. They part ways; Lamat goes on to have a good, rewarding life with a new partner; Disaine does the things she wanted to do until she can't anymore. Neither of them is right or wrong because the point isn't the answer, any more than the point of the mountain is the summit. The point is to keep climbing.