A Princess seeking to escape the circumscribed nature of her life and the path set out for her. A Prince who strives to protect his land against an invasion and threat his small country has no capacity to stop. A tyrannical King whose plots and plans overwhelm them all. And a mysterious mountain of knowledge and power that is the key to all of them. It sounds on the face to be a standard fantasy setup with characters out of stock central fantasy casting that could be listed in Diana Wynne Jones’ THE TOUGH GUIDE TO FANTASYLAND.
You can probably even predict how this sort of set up will go, on the old straight track. Prince saves the day, Princess is plucky, Father dies heroically and repents and recants on his deathbed, paving way for Prince to be the better successor. Simple and straightforward character beats and maybe if one is lucky, some character growth for Prince and Princess too. However, The Mountain of Kept Memory by Rachel Neumeier avoids those well trod paths that might go with that sort of fantasy setup, and has a focus, tone and through line that is rather different and rather special.
Our focal character in The Mountain of Kept Memory is that aforementioned heroic princess Oressa. While her father, the King of Carastind, would rather see her pent and out of trouble, she is indeed the kind of Princess who explores secret and back passages in the rambling, extensive palace, explores and climbs rooftops, and generally does what she wants without anyone noticing or paying attention to her. Her very introduction, as she hides secretly in the throne room, listening to affairs of state, stamps her character and personality right from the very start. As the Tamarist forces land and her world is threatened and turned upside down, even Oressa’s pluckiness is tested, reforged and changed by her experiences.
Gulien is our other major viewpoint character, her brother. Being the son and heir of the King is not quite as oppressive as being the pent Oressa, but it is no simple berth for Gulien, either. With his father’s own plots and plans seemingly an ineffective response to the invasion threat, Gulien is self-motivated to try and take on that burden by himself. His nobility combined with his dogged persistence and impulsiveness are a three-part stool of personality that leads to an interesting character tension within him as the novel unfolds.
The third triad in the novel is not the father, I think, but the Kieba, the Titular Mountain of Lost Memory that propels and drives the plot. An intrusion of magic and technology into an otherwise relatively low-magic world and setting, the Kieba is singular, powerful and a plot and character magnet throughout the novel. My mind kept going to the World machine in Babylon 5 for comparisons — a place of power, peril, and information apart from the main flow of things. A place where one might learn what was needed for an upcoming conflict, and yet find that there were costs to that power and knowledge, and that one might learn about even greater dangers and issues previously beyond one’s understanding.
Above and beyond the characters and their unexpected paths and courses, the writing in The Mountain of Kept Memory is gorgeous and evocative, especially in the evocation of the world around Oressa. She’s an extremely mentally chatty character, which makes for a character always in observation and perception of the world around her, which for me made for an enthusiastically immersive experience. Gulien’s experience, although written similarly, felt a little more distanced from me, almost as if the writer was a little more engaged with Oressa’s story than her brother’s. In any event, I felt I understood Oressa far better by the end of the novel than him. It was and is interesting, though, that since the King is not a viewpoint character, the very different perspectives of sister and brother on their father led to and lent an interesting complexity to him. His early, seemingly capricious tyranny proved to be something a little different.
The Mountain of Kept Memory was a consistently and continually unexpected pleasure. I picked it up thinking it was a rather standard epic fantasy, but came away with something much more delightful and beyond my expectations. I look forward to more books set in this world.