Mammoths at the Gates by Nghi Vo is, as is usual for any entry in the Singing Hills Cycle, a lot of stories in one story. Usually the interwoven tales are the result of Cleric Chih’s journeys as they collect tales for their abbey, but for this fourth installment, Chih has finally returned home to recuperate from years on the road.
Only, as the title suggests, there are some mammoths at the gates. War mammoths specifically, which readers will recall from the first book, The Empress of Salt and Fortune, are powerful enough to topple empires. Yet there they stand, outside a humble monastery while their humans demand to take charge of a recently deceased cleric’s remains, Cleric Thien—their grandfather. And with their remains, the story of their life.
The stakes in Mammoths at the Gates were also a bit uneven for me. I never really believed that a military contingent was going to demolish the abbey, even if there were family troubles being aired. Maybe if it had been one sister, overrun with grief or blinded by tradition, but two? Somebody always has a wiser head or colder feet, and even from the very beginning Mammoth Corporal Vi In Yee seems to have both. She counsels Chih on defusing the situation, and then allows Chih to just…go into the abbey. Chih goes through the gate, says hi to everyone, even hands out candy to the novices. The threat stops being so threatening.
So too the threat of haunting: Rather unexpectedly, this is a ghost story. (Kind of. It’s complicated in a way I won’t spoil, but it’s great.) Thien may or may not be haunting the abbey, disquieted by the conflict or perhaps just eager to ameliorate it. Or—maybe it’s another entity masquerading as Thien?
Vo had a lot of good ideas in Mammoths at the Gates and a lot of threads. I don’t think she did a bad job in weaving them together, either; it’s more that the weft was too short. Vo put herself on a narrative clock, with an imminent interment and a literally and figuratively looming threat of violence via mammoth, but then needed time and space to explore the subtler themes of homecoming, evolving friendships, grief, responsibility, disability…and honestly, the list continues, but that’s a lot already. All of which are handled with grace and respect, but not a lot of room to breathe.
There were also layers of nixin politics I didn’t quite understand, resulting in scenes of high stakes and drama feeling a bit underwhelming. I really did care about Cleverness Himself and Myriad Virtues—but only insofar as Chih cared about them. There just wasn’t enough context for their personalities or relationships beyond that, so I kept waiting for more details, and didn’t always get them. It’s a fine line to present details of a world in which the reader and the protagonist have asymmetrical information: Chih knew every part of the abbey intimately and instinctively, but Mammoths at the Gates is our first visit. In trying to focus on the pressing issues of the present—Chih’s homecoming, the martial threat—Vo didn’t always provide quite enough details about the situations in which these conflicts existed.
This was not an issue of past/present. There are many affecting and complete anecdotes that do tremendous work in creating a complex narrative of both Chih’s childhood and Thien’s life.
How can a person do something terrible, but also repair the relationship he damaged? How can a person be manipulative to the point of terrifying a whole community, but do so in the name of a greater sense of justice? Mammoths at the Gates doesn’t have a single, pithy answer to that; it’s more concerned (and rightly so) with centering the ambiguity. Is Thien a good person who did a bad thing, a bad person who then did some good things, or is the entire idea of moral absolutes the wrong basis for evaluation? As always, I adore how Vo offers deep insight into both the matters at hand (who controls a legacy?) and into the art of storytelling (who controls a story?). Overall, this is a good book and a solid continuation of the story of Cleric Chih and Almost Brilliant. But more than once I found myself missing their adventures on the road, which had clearer themes and both a cast and history that were as unfamiliar to Chih as they were to us. I hope that we get to visit the abbey under less pressing circumstances in the next volume, or that we can find ourselves once more on an adventure to elsewhere.