Expect no easy ride. Author Bryn Hammond evidently thinks that the best way to teach you swimming is to throw you into the deep end. But if you don’t drown instantly, and if you brace yourself through the first 10-20 pages of Against Walls, there is a good chance that you’ll stay in the magic waters of her world until the end of the story.
It doesn’t matter that you are reading a book about Chinggis Khan, or call him Genghis Khan, the greatest conqueror of in the history of the world You’ll forget all about it after these 20 pages, because there is no conqueror as yet and won’t be for quite a while; only his world is all around you, and that world is all that matters. There are several ways of luring a reader into an unknown universe of distant places and distant times. The simple way is to summon somebody from, say, the Europe of the times and let the reader marvel at all the exotica through that traveler’s eyes. That makes easy reading, but seldom shakes one to the core. Total and instant immersion is, on the other hand, a cruel, risky, but rewarding way to do it: a lot of readers will scuttle away, but those who remain will be all the author’s.
Bol-Gunutei and Bel-Gunutei, you gossip about your mother and speculate where she goes, what she does, who fathered these three children? Uncanny children they are and you are due an explanation. I saw him indistinctly, in a yellow glare as of the sun. He entered by the smoke hole when the moon was high, by the gap at the top of the door if the stars to the south cast a light. In a man’s shape he was wont to stroke me over my womb, where his glow sank into me. When he had done what he came for he fled up any beam he found, low on his belly like a fiery hound.
I happen to know this world: I’ve been to Mongolia three times and, recently, in Russia’s Altai, which is about the same. I know that Bryn Hammond did a miracle of transporting the reader there, but I’ve no idea how she did it (that’s a real compliment from one writer to another). That’s a wolf’s world, whatever it means, a world of strange talk in strange places; it’s in fact another planet.
There is that problem of other worlds—if you create them from scratch and call them fiction, they still bear a lot of resemblance to what we see around us. But if you do a real historical novel, if you just try to portray meticulously what really was a mere 800 years ago, you’ll effect the reader’s total disengagement from reality. And that’s what’s good and terrible with Against Walls, namely a total and terrifying realism. You feel it’s the real thing, but you are not ready for it.
But then, why go back in time, when you might try Africa or even the same Mongolia of today, and experience that same feeling of total unreality of these places?
The difference is Hammond’s plot which evolves in a mysteriously exciting way. Hammond has a style of her own which is hard to describe: not light, not sweet at all, but thoroughly compelling and powerful. On the author’s website , she says the the book should be treated as “an heir to medieval romance”. The website, by the way, makes quite a reading in itself, but it’s not a romance. The book is.