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Now That We’re Done

Mammoths at the Gates  (Singing Hills Cycle, volume 4)

By Nghi Vo 

4 May, 2023

Miscellaneous Reviews


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Mammoths at the Gates is the fourth installment in Nghi Vo’s Singing Hill’s Cycle. Reviews of the previous three stories may be found here, here, and here.

Cleric Chih returns home to the Singing Hills abbey. Some say one can never go home again. In the case of Cleric Chih, one can go home. Sometimes, however, there is a pair of royal mammoths waiting for one.

Royal mammoths being able to easily flatten the gates and the monastery within, their presence is a matter of concern.

Three events have conspired to make life interesting at the Singing Hills monastery.

  1. Royal engineers drained Snakehead Lake, exposing the drowned city of Houshi. The lake will be refilled in four months, no doubt destroying what remains of the city in the process. Always eager to preserve history, many clerics at Houshi have left to engage in emergency archaeology. Of the clerics who remained behind, the most senior cleric was Cleric Thien.
  1. The seemingly healthy Cleric Thien has suddenly died.
  1. Thien’s granddaughters Tui In Hao and Vi In Yee arrived. Tui In Hao is particularly determined to take Cleric Thien’s body to be buried near his late widow.

Before he was beloved Cleric Thien, the dead man was Thein An Lee. Thein An Lee was a famed advocate, a father, and a husband of debatable virtue. Legally, Thein An Lee died when he became Cleric Thein. The funerary arrangements must therefore be those of a cleric.

As far as the sisters are concerned, the dead man was their grandfather regardless of legal formalities. For reasons that appear compelling, they are determined to retrieve the corpse to inter it as proper for advocate Thein An Lee. Tui In Hao has no legal right to demand this. She does, however, have two royal mammoths at her disposal. Disappointment could have calamitous results for the abbey.

The law and Tui In Hao’s demands cannot be reconciled. For the abbey to survive, they must be reconciled.


As I will mention in more detail tomorrow, there are parallels between this novel and the one I will review tomorrow. This is pure happenstance, of a sort that occurs over and over.

I was a bit surprised that the resolution didn’t involve some particularly devious legal reasoning. Since Cleric Chih has never demonstrated any talent for such things in the past, I don’t know why I expected the cleric to resort to that sort of gambit. Instead, the solution, whose nature I am certain no reader will guess, is foreshadowed by the sisters’ willingness to simply cut Gordian knots.

Even for a novella, this is slender, a mere 128 pages. Vo therefore does not have much room to spare. Accordingly, the characters, the situation, and the stakes are presented with marvelous efficiency. Likewise, the plot traverses the path from beginning to closure without significant digression. Authors whose plots have a habit of getting away from them could take a lesson from Vo.

At the same time, lean is not the same as lacking. The characters are effectively depicted. Their motivations, while not necessarily reasonable, are plausible. The dilemma is engaging. Readers will care about the outcome. I wanted an enjoyable hour or two of reading, and that is exactly what I got.

Of course, the rest of you will have to wait for September1.

Mammoths at the Gates is available for pre-order here (Amazon US), here (Amazon Canada), here (Amazon UK), here (Apple Books), here (Barnes & Noble), and here (Chapters-Indigo).

Book Depository has been removed, as it no longer exists. It has been replaced with Apple Books. I don’t seem to be able to get Apple’s search function to look for books, although I have a work around for that. How do Apple Books customers find books on the site? 

Until today, I had not noticed I arranged the booksellers after Amazon in alphabetical order. Dumb luck or unconscious obsession.

1: The marshmallow test only makes sense if one thinks there will be a second marshmallow. My experience of the last seven years suggests that it is better to grasp immediate gratification than to trust that nothing will go wrong between now and the book’s September release.

Please don’t google Waugh banana.’