On Tselaya Mountain, all humans transform into animals as a consequence of age — but for fieldwoman Esha, goat horns began growing in when she was just a child. Now in her forties, unmarried and alone, Esha scrambles to pay for her own retirement before she is more goat than person.
But when Esha stumbles into the wrong patch of forest, a wild phoenix steals her heirloom khukuri knife. Unwilling to lose her treasure before she can sell it, Esha forges a deal with Atarangi, a back-alley diplomat who speaks to animals. Together, the two women climb mountain plateaus to reach the wild phoenix’s territory. With enough tact and translation magic, the bird might be convinced to give Esha’s retirement fund back.
But the question remains: why did the phoenix steal an heirloom in the first place? What debt could a wild, free creature possibly need to pay?
Source: Review copy from the author
This book is truly wonderful, because it is full of wonder. Those phoenixes, oh, the phoenixes! I am in love with those birds, particularly Rooftop. But it’s not just the creatures that bring wonder, it’s the world itself and the magic and the way humans don’t just grow old, but gradually change into animals as they age. It’s all so clever and different and beautifully imagined. I found the whole thing an unexpected delight.
From the very first scene, Esha does not appear to be a very heroic character, and in truth she’s not. She’s a woman to whom life hasn’t been particularly kind, so she has learnt to be cowardly and underhand when dealing with others. Social class is rigid on Tselaya mountain and Esha is a poor fieldwoman, who spends her life growing yams and hoping to somehow earn enough money to one day retire as her body slowly betrays her to the goat. However, since this is unlikely, she has learnt to be sneaky with the truth and to take advantage where she can in the hopes of making small gains here and there.
Which is how she comes to lose her valuable khukuri knife to a wild phoenix. Most people on the mountain see the birds as pests, ones who steal crops and set fields on fire with the striking tools on their tails. Luckily for Esha, Atarangi is a foreign diplomat who embraces the magical field of animism and talks to animals, especially phoenixes. The two women strike a deal to find the wild phoenix and try to regain Esha’s property.
But this story is about so much more than the physical journey up the mountain. It’s about more than the knife and a good retirement fund for a low level field worker. With the use of Atarangi and her outside view of Esha’s country, they begin to explore the prejudices that have ruled Esha’s life and the beliefs that have closed her mind off to the real magic around her. I loved how Atarangi opens Esha’s mind without ever lecturing or judging her. She makes her views pretty clear at certain times, but she never imposes her own views on the other woman. And gorgeous Rooftop, the tame phoenix, does more than anyone to teach Esha the error of her ways. I adored him so much.
I also loved the magic of this world. The lungta that floats down from the sky to nourish all growing things and is gained from eating plant foods. A quick chew on a nut or something similar, and a person can talk to someone of another language. A little more food and a bit more effort and a human can talk to an animal. It’s so simple, yet works so beautifully. I also adored the phoenix way of talking, so rich with colours and hues. It’s gorgeous.
The story itself is slow and subtle, gradually unwinding like the road that spirals up the mountain. It starts off so simple – more money for Esha’s retirement fund – and gradually broadens out and out, picking up new characters along the way, each with their own goals and secrets and hopes. It does take a while to really hit its stride, and Esha isn’t the most likeable of characters at first, but stick with it because once Atarangi and the phoenixes get involved the whole tale becomes delightful.
It’s not perfect, though. The author’s occasionally quirky turn of phrase might not please everyone and there were a couple of things I would have liked to have known more of – Esha’s marriage, just what Clamshell actually did to offend certain parties – but the whole story just drew me in so quietly and surely that I almost didn’t want to find my way out again.
If you’re looking for a fantasy read that takes you into a far different world from what the genre usually offers and enjoy a story that prefers to keep things small, rather than aiming to change the world, you should definitely give this a try. The magic is clever but subtle, the world is beautifully imagined and takes plenty of inspiration from Nepalese culture and the phoenixes are beautiful. It also carries a strong cast of characters as it heads out on an enjoyable journey that is as much of the heart and mind as the physical body. I thoroughly enjoyed it and I look forward to seeing what this author can come up with next – especially if it involves more phoenixes.
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