The best thing about being a blogger with some sphere of influence is that you can tell people about sorely underrated gems like these. THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL only has just over 1,000 reviews as of my writing this review, which is a shame, because it has many elements that are very popular in the romantic fantasy novels coming out now. The ratings for it are polarized, but my guess is that's because THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL reads like YA, but has elements of both romantic and hardcore traditional fantasy, and it's not really clear who the target audience is. Apart from me, that is. Your residential trash queen contrarian who is here for the lulz.
THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL was published by Luna in 2004. Luna is Harlequin's fantasy imprint, perhaps most famous for its publication of Maria V. Snyder's POISON STUDY, although they have also published titles by Mercedes Lackey and Laura Anne Gilman. Caitlin Brennan is also a big name author, although you wouldn't know it without some minor sleuthing that her "name" is actually a pen name of the famous fantasy author, Judith Tarr.
In THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL, a bunch of gods who take the form of white horses live in a place called "the Mountain." Every year, they send out a Call to mages of potential, which drives them to stumble towards the Mountain by whatever means necessary, like zombies, to seek out the school there which teaches these Call recipients how to use their powers and become Riders. The Call has, historically, only gone to men, which is why Valeria is shocked when she hears the Call as clear as a bell, demanding that she go to the Mountain to learn her new trade. Her family tries to imprison her to stop her, but Valeria escapes and disguises herself as a boy in order to attend the school.
At first, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL has a kind of Mulan vibe. Valeria even cuts off her hair. That changes when her secret outs, and the school rejects her. The only one who stands up for her is Kerrec, the youngest rider, and her savior when she was nearly raped as she traveled to the school. He is her advocate and volunteers to be her teacher, but then a group of barbarians invade who worship a different god and have managed to channel the magic of the gods into its concentrated, unnatural form, resulting in a dark and evil force called the Unmaking, which has the power to destroy.
The barbarians capitalize on Valeria's anger at the sexist jerks in charge of the magic school, offering her the chance to take her loyal horse and study at a new school that totally welcomes women - as long as they're, you know, willing to be evil. It helps that the guy who stole her virginity, a good-looking prince named Euan, is totally #TeamEvil and advocating for the school and its master. But then when they capture Kerrec after he comes looking for her, torture him, rape him, and then mind rape him, #TeamEvil stops looking so good - especially since Kerrec was the only one in her corner.
THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL is surprisingly dark, much more so than I was expecting given that Luna titles are generally fluffy and romantic (although not always - POISON STUDY was also dark). I was not expecting the hero to get raped, although luckily one of the other reviews I'd read warned me of this in advance, so I don't think it came as quite of a nasty shock to me as it did to her. There's also a pretty gory sacrifice scene, and while Valeria is in the school, there's some pretty unpleasant trials resulting in rather graphic death to those who don't obey the order and take the magic seriously.
Ultimately, I really liked the book. I thought the magic system was interesting and I'm a sucker for fantasy novels about animal companions, and in this regard, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL reminded me rather favorably of Mercedes Lackey's JOUST. It also has the potential to start some interesting dialogues about feminism and role reversals in fantasy, as the hero is the one who is abused, and the heroine is the one who has all the sexual power and entertains multiple partners while driving the hero made with jealousy and feelings of inadequacy, which he must then overcome. The women in this book are strong characters, and I loved that the heir apparent to the throne, Briana, ended up playing more of a role towards the end of the book in saving the kingdom and redeeming Valeria.
The thing that turned me off the book the most was actually how the romance and the love triangle were handled. I didn't like Euan from the get-go, and when I found out that Kerrec was the love interest, I was frustrated by the fact that Valeria kept sleeping with Euan, even though he has such a sleazy frat-boy vibe going on and she totally knew that he was bad. I was firmly in the Team Kerrec camp from the moment his icy ass walked on the page, and when he had to endure all that torture, my heart ached for him - especially when he heard Valeria banging Euan and thought she had betrayed him. It was interesting to see the gender role reversal of a promiscuous and idiotic heroine jerking the hero around for a change from a feminist perspective, but as a romance reader, I found it frustrating.
Overall, though, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL was a solid fantasy novel with many great elements and I'm very interested in reading the sequel, SONG OF THE UNMAKING (perhaps when it goes on sale). From the cover, to the writing, to the mechanics of the storyline and magic system, THE MOUNTAIN'S CALL has a lot going for it. I'm honestly surprised that it isn't more popular. If you enjoy dark reads and don't mind rape and violence in your books, you should definitely pay the 99-cents this book currently costs and pick up a copy for yourself. It was a wonderful surprise for me.
3 to 3.5 out of 5 stars