My favourite thing about a fantasy world is that anything can be changed. Wrongs can be righted. Rights can be wronged. And characters can still familiar challenges in unfamiliar realms. This idea is on display at its best in From Under The Mountain, an impressive fantasy book by Cait Spivey.
The main character is Guerline, a nineteen year old princess and second child. Following the deaths of her parents, she expects her brother to ascend to the role of emperor of their nation, Arido. However, his unexpected death lands her as the empress, something she is not remotely prepared for.
This adds to her already extensive list of problems. She has been mistreated and abused by her family, and must now find the strength to unite a fraying empire. Political tension is threatening to tear her fledgling rule apart from the off, and it centres around magic. Witch clans have been a huge part of life in Aridan. For instance, the witches of Thiymen clan escort the souls of the recently deceased to the afterlife. However, many humans fear magic, and believe that the witches have too much power.
While Guerline struggles with this, she must also deal with her feelings for Eva, her low born companion. A romance begins to blossom, but now she must also consider her position as empress, the expectation that she will marry for political means. This struggle drives much of the book, and Spivey writes it very well. Guerrilla and Eva want nothing more than to run away together, but duty and political differences threaten to keep them apart.
While all this is going on, there’s also a demon with plans to wreak some havoc on the world. It has been trapped by Thiymen clan for centuries, but now it has some ideas about getting free. It wants to destroy the gate to the underworld, guarded by Thiymen under the eastern mountains where they live.
Cait Spivey lifts some of the burdens that plague our world, while maintaining or throwing in others. For instance, same sex relationships have never been stigmatised. Guerline and Eva could legally marry, and have biological children through the use of magic. However, Guerline’s position as empress means that she is expected to dispense with her own feelings.
She has also suffered just for being female. Her brother was abusive to her, and her parents treated her cruelly. And there is still the flawed expectation that Guerline would take a back seat in ruling if she were to choose a husband. I enjoy how she overcomes many of these challenges and proves her abilities, both to those around her and herself.
Magic plays an integral part in the novel, and Spivey’s magic system is brilliant. It never feels like someone is just going to wave a magic wand and fix everything. There are limits to it, and severe dangers to its use.
There are a fair few action scenes, including smaller struggles and epic battles. At times, I would have liked some more description of these. Occasionally, the fighting is delivered more like an overview than a blow by blow account of events. However, this is not all the time, and there is still plenty of excitement to be had.
If you enjoy epic fantasy with diverse and believable characters, witches, demons, dragons and hell hounds, then you should give From Under The Mountain a read. I have also been privileged enough to beta read other material from the same universe. A draft version of Spivey’s writing was plenty to convince me to rush out and read more of their work. This series is going to some great places, and I look forward to more stories soon.