Thursday, September 22, 2016

Every Mountain Made Low - Alex White

Every Mountain Made Low is a sci-fi novel from Alex White. It takes place in a town-within-a-mountain, somewhere in a slightly alternate Alabama, following a protagonist with a somewhat unique perspective, as she attempts to avenge a murder, and, preferably, survive.

The world the reader is thrown into is a heavily stratified one, geographically and socially. The population appear to live in concentric rings within a mountain which is itself being mined for ore. Each ring closer to the floor of the workings also seems to indicate a drop in social class. The higher rings are populated by foremen, engineers and technical specialists, or, even further up, by corporate presidents. The lower rings are filled with workers, slumlords, the baffled and the dispossessed. Those working the mines are protected at shift change by armed guards – though they seem to serve the dual purpose of protecting the miners and effectively restraining them.

This towering society, delving into the pit, is a part of something larger, rising out of Alabama. There are other cities – Jacksonville, Atlanta – within reach, though all seem to be under the nominal authority of “The Con”, a sprawling corporation which effectively owns the continental United States. The Con are ruthless and exploitative,  driving their own agenda of profit without much in the way of mercy. For all that though, they’re a part of a thriving urban ecosystem, and the brief piece of their history that is mentioned is one I’d like to see explored further.

Near the bottom of the creaking machinery that drives the Hole is our protagonist, Loxley. I’ve got to give points to the author for providing us with a protagonist with a very distinct point of view, and maintaining that distinction throughout the text. Loxley is certainly different from other people. She doesn’t cope well with loud noises or crowds, and isn’t very good at reading expressions,  or decoding speech where the tone, words and meaning are in opposition. She is not, however, as she insists herself, a stupid person – understanding the world within her constraints very well.

It’s difficult to explain how impressed I was with this as a narrative device. It’s a tricky read, but the author provides us a set of eyes which do not see entirely as one might expect, but maintain their own consistency. As the book progressed, I found I could follow Loxley’s state of mind,  see her objections as she attempted to parse details from her environment. This is a tip-top portrayal of a complex individual, with a distinct way of seeing the world – and the text is no less compelling (and perhaps more so) for having attempted to provide this view.

Then there’s the fact that Loxley can see ghosts. These fetid, rather unpleasant creatures seem to surface from the bodies of the recently deceased, where they suffered a violent death. They don’t seem to like Loxley much, either – interacting with them seems to give great pain to her, but they seem very keen to reach out to her, in the same way that cats play with a lone mouse.

Loxley’s backed up by a supporting cast who run the gamut of what we might think of as standard points of view. Of particular note is her friend Nora, a sharp tongued pragmatist with a gift for self-examination, and a larger gift for sating the wrong thing at the wrong time. Nora is sometimes caustic, damaged, and very well aware of her position in the hierarchy of the Hole. There were a few moments where she seemed to have lapses of judgment that served the story rather than the character, but these did fit into an existing framework of decisions, and so there wasn’t much to complain about.

The antagonists – well, one of them receives rather a lot of character detail. In contrast to Loxley, who changes a little over the course of the text, becoming more accepting of others, and smoothing out the jangles surrounding her perception of the world, this individual doesn’t change much at all. But there’s a smooth coolness to each of their scenes, a calm, focused viciousness which is rather unnerving.  Still, it would have been great to see more of them, as well as thecauses and individuals they answered to. There’s enough here to build animosity, and enough complexity on display that the antagonists aren’t simply paper targets – but a few more paragraphs here and there would have been, if not useful, certainly intriguing.

The plot begins with our introduction to Loxley, but quickly becomes a rather fraught tale of murder, investigation and revenge. The first half does take a bit of getting into, it’s definitely a slow burn – but once I was on board with Loxley and her world, I found it very difficult to put down. The second act carries a raft of tension and implications, and if the dénouement was perhaps to be expected, it was nonetheless well crafted.

Is it worth reading? I think the unique perspective of the protagonist may make it a struggle in some cases, and I’d suggest reading a sample first, if you can. But if the prose works for you, then the world and characters are vivid and interesting, and perhaps a little different from anything else  available right now. It’s a good story, in a world I want to see more of, with an ambitiously portrayed main character – I enjoyed it, and I’d recommend you give it a try, to see if you do as well.

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