Book review: Walking Mountain, by Joan Lennon

The map accompanying this excellent fantasy novel for young adults undermines more than enriches the story, writes Roger Cox

More often than not, works of fantasy fiction and maps of the worlds they conjure up go together like orcs and goblins. Just think of the gloriously evocative maps JRR Tolkein’s son Christopher drew for the Lord of the Rings books, or the interactive Game of Thrones map that had fans of George RR Martin’s novels clicking away contentedly for hours on end when it appeared online a couple of years ago. In both these cases, the maps complemented the books so successfully because the books created such detailed and vividly imagined places – worlds that were crying out to be mapped. In Joan Lennon’s new book Walking Mountain, however, the map reproduced at the beginning only serves to undermine the story to come, drawing attention to some of its shortcomings rather than deepening and enhancing the experience of reading it.

Part of the problem is that the map is uninspiringly straightforward, showing the journey of the book’s three protagonists, Pema, Singay and Rose, as an almost dead-straight line from near the top of an imposing peak called Mother Mountain via areas called the Overland, the Plains and the Flats down to the sea. That lack of detail wouldn’t be such a problem if the world of the book was more fully developed, but as the three friends’ journey progresses it becomes increasingly apparent that the reason the map doesn’t contain anything much outside the narrow corridor of land the they are travelling along is because the author gives precious little information about what’s out there; the map-maker couldn’t have added much more detail even if he or she had wanted to.

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Another problem with the map being so linear is that it draws attention to the highly linear nature of the narrative: there are no cleverly overlapping subplots here – just a steady progression from one episode to the next. And perhaps most damagingly of all, the map serves as a great big spoiler. As it’s entitled “The Journey of Pema, Singay and Rose from Mother Mountain Down to the Sea” we can be fairly certain right from the get-go that the trio will eventually overcome whatever trials are to be thrown their way and reach their objective.

In spite of all this, however, Walking Mountain still has much to recommend it: the characters are well-drawn, the sliver of the world the author shows to us is convincingly realised and the action rattles along at a satisfying pace. The book is aimed at a young adult audience, and it’s easy to imagine someone in their early teens really investing in the characters and racing through the pages to follow them from one perilous encounter to the next.

Pema, a shepherd boy from the mountains, and Singay, a rebellious novice in the mysterious order of the White Women, are thrown together when they find a strange, secretive alien creature called Rose hiding inside Mother Mountain. They soon discover he is part of the reason their world has been behaving so strangely of late, and that the only way to save their civilisation is to help Rose reach the sea, where he hopes to make contact with two more of his species and stop Mother Mountain from “walking” in the wrong direction. A sequel set up in the final chapter sounds promising, although perhaps it could be published map-free.

Walking Mountain is published by BC Books, £6.99

Joan Lennon is at the Edinburgh International Book Festival on 12 August