Mammoths At The Gates by Nghi Vo

For all that each novella in this series is touted as a standalone, I do very much think that readers would benefit from reading at least a few of the earlier books first. I was struck with Nghi Vo’s propensity for giving almost no backstory to readers in Book One, preferring to immerse us directly in the action instead. That’s forgivable in a first book, but by Book Four, it feels less intentional than lazy, especially given the assurances that each book can be read on its own. I wonder if critical eyes that were fresh to this series were ever applied to this novella: that would definitely help with the standalone claim.

Anyway, Mammoths At The Gates starts with series protagonist Cleric Chih finally making it home to the Singing Hills Abbey, to find a literal pair of mammoths at the gates. A straitlaced, pissed off advocate is camped out by the abbey walls, while her younger sister, the actual commander of the battle steeds, is trying to keep her calm. They don’t attempt to block Chih’s entry into the abbey compound but do warn the returning cleric that they won’t leave without what they came for.

Chih enters the compound to discover that their beloved mentor Cleric Thien has recently died. The sisters camped outside are Thien’s granddaughters, who insist on taking their body home to be buried with the honors due to Thien’s prior existence as a renowned advocate from a prominent family. The few clerics in the abbey are aghast: to give up Thien’s body would be the equivalent of disrespecting their choice to forsake their old life in order to embrace the simpler ways of the Singing Hills. The abbey is thus trapped in an uncomfortable detente with the sisters, who refuse to take no for an answer.

As Chih and the acting Abbot attempt a delicate negotiation with the sisters, the neixin — the sentient, talking hoopoes with perfect recall who serve as each cleric’s companion in recording everything they come across without fear or favor — are enduring turmoil of their own. Myriad Virtues, Thien’s neixin, is in grievous mourning, and demands a place at Thien’s upcoming memorial service. With disaster looming on the doorstep, the acting Abbot doesn’t have time for this disruption of etiquette. Will Chih be able to smoothe everything over before the unthinkable happens?

It’s weird: rehashing the plot here makes it all sound oddly low stakes, as two, maybe three, sets of traditions clash against one another, driven by the grief of three different interests. There are a lot of erratic characterizations here, and a lot of expectation that readers will be able to keep track of who’s who despite some rather murky differentiation — again, I think this novella would have benefited greatly from being edited by someone who wasn’t already familiar with this fictional universe. Yet the denouement is pretty spectacular, and the lessons, about grief, about giving up the past, about complexity and forgiveness, are all excellently done. I just wish I hadn’t spent the first eighty percent or so of this book feeling vaguely annoyed at having to hazard guesses at things that everyone in the book’s universe seemed to take for granted as being so obvious they didn’t need explaining.

I do like this better than Seeds Of Mercury, the other entry I’ve read so far in the Best Novella category for the 2024 Hugos. I’m just hoping one of the other nominees grabs me and makes me feel enthusiastic about voting, as this book certainly didn’t.

Mammoths At The Gates by Nghi Vo was published September 12 2023 by Tordotcom and is available from all good booksellers, including

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  1. Novella has been such a strong category in recent years — although when Jo Walton did her column looking at the Hugos from 1953 to 2000 she said that novella often reflected the state of the genre better than novel, so maybe it’s not such a recent thing after all — but this year it’s not. The two translations from Chinese wound up very low in my vote, as did The Mimicking of Known Successes.

    A solid Wayward Children novella would have been high on this year’s list. Martha Wells has apparently retired Murderbot from accepting Hugo nominations, another weakening of the field.

    I’m glad to see Arkady Martine at shorter length and away from her plucky ambassador (and with fewer italics!). Tho I probably liked Rose/House better than you will because I read far fewer mysteries and thrillers. Thornhedge is good, though not as good as Nettle & Bone or A Wizard’s Guide to Defensive Baking.

    Anyway, I need to make time to write my actual reviews, or maybe just short bits on the ones I didn’t like so much.

    1. Had I more time in my life, I would 100% look up Jo Walton’s column because that sounds rad. But I do agree that many of the books I remember as being particularly influential from the 20th century tended to be on the shorter side, e.g. Budrys’ Rogue Moon, Ballard’s The Drowned World, Asimov’s The End Of Eternity. Longer novels tended to be sagas that were more character- and event- rather than idea-driven (and also tended towards fantasy vs sci-fi, at least in my own reading tendencies.) It genuinely surprised me to learn a while back that some of the seminal sci-fi I think of fondly are strictly in novella territory. But that’s a great thing! So many books nowadays are filled with unnecessary bloat. I actually thanked a Tor publicist the other day for spearheading the push to bring back novellas!

      As for the other nominees for Best Novella this year, you will DEFINITELY be hearing my opinion of them soon. I’m not sure if I’ll be able to finish off all the reviews before voting, but I’ll definitely have completed them and Graphic Stories by the 19th. Novels are very likely going to be a wash this year, alas.

      1. Alas, my review of the book made from those columns

        does not contain the quote about novellas. But you may have a copy in your Dublin readers’ pack.

        I agree about lengths in recent years. So many of the F/SF books I’ve read lately feel like they would just be stronger stories at about 250 pages rather than 350-400 or even more. I’m feeling that with most of the Best Novel nominees, too. Except for the Scalzi, which was hilarious. I might well have zipped through it in one sitting if I had started earlier in the day. I guess the economics of $30 for a 250-page hardback are kinda dismal?

        Yay novellas! I am glad that they have developed into a real market in the last 10 years or so.

        I was really looking forward to this year’s bunch of novels, but now that I am in the middle of three of them and having just finished a fourth, I have to say that all four have been easy to put down to come back to later. I did read one of the Lodestar books before the finalists were announced, so I have put in a vote for that. Otherwise, I’m not sure that I will get to any of those or to the Astounding finalists. I’m glad there are voters committed to those categories.

        1. My electronic copy of the Walton book is searchable, whee!

          There’s this about 1967:

          “So if this was a bad year for novels, it was one of the best years ever for novellas. I honestly would have had a hard time nominating just five, and I don’t know how I would have voted.” (p. 145)

          This bit, from the 1981 awards might be what I was remembering:

          “You know, whatever happens with the novels, the novella category always seems to have great stuff. It’s true that this is where a lot of the life of the genre has always been.” (p. 304)

          And this from 1983:

          “…it seems to me that we keep having a set of brilliant novellas year after year, that it’s consistently a really strong category.” (p. 325)

          And 1989. Repetition clearly helped me remember!

          “Again, terrific novellas. All five of them are memorable and excellent. I think this is consistently the category with the highest quality nominees.” (p. 399)


          “If anybody had asked me before I started this series, I’d have had no idea that the novella was the Hugo category that I consistently remembered best and which had the best nominees, but year after year, there it is.” (p. 443)

  2. Now I kinda want to look up all those past novellas! Like I need any more reading projects, lolsob. 100% agreed about books needing more rigorous editing vs the economics of selling more pages. That’s why I felt the need to thank Tor directly for having the balls to do it.

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