Reading The Mount is a challenging, but ultimately rewarding, experience. Author Carol Emshwiller expertly forces readers to identify with a narrator who is shrouded in ignorance and stubbornly resists being coaxed toward enlightenment. Like the best sci-fi, the novel uses a fantastical setting to illustrate a painfully realistic internal struggle.
Charley is a mount, a member of the human race on an Earth that has been invaded by small, weak-legged aliens the humans call Hoots. Hoots have used their superior senses and intellects to enslave humanity, training and riding them as we do horses, keeping them in stables, even breeding them to produce specific characteristics. Charley's a Seattle, the breed engineered for superior strength and stamina. He's also a Tame, i.e., born in captivity. Escape has never crossed his mind. As the mount of the Future-Leader-of-Us-All, a baby Hoot called Little Master, Charley enjoys every luxury: a comfortable stall, good shoes, plenty of playtime, plenty of food. The only thing he lacks is something that, as an adolescent, he hasn't yet learned to value: his freedom. When Charley's father a Tame who escaped and now runs with the Wilds scattered through the nearby mountains leads a raid on the village and frees Charley and his young rider, the teenage mount is resentful. Why should he give up his comfortable home just to run around in the mountains where there are no shoes, no racing trophies, not enough food and a bunch of Wilds who aren't even purebred Seattles? On top of that, he doesn't like his father partly because he's a giant of a man who can barely speak, thanks to the scars left in his mouth by the spiked metal bit he wore as a Guard's Mount, but mostly because the pure-blooded patriarch is in love with a lean, lanky Tennessee, not a Seattle. If his father and the Tennessee had a child, Charley frets, it would be a "nothing," neither Seattle nor Tennessee, and no Hoot would want to ride it.
As Charley struggles with his conflicting emotions devotion to his Little Master, desire for prestige in the Hoot world, pride in his breeding, a growing admiration for his father, inexplicable fondness for a "nothing" girl the foolish bigotry, misplaced loyalty and other trappings of his upbringing slowly fall away.
Emshwiller is a much-admired writer in the genre who won the World Fantasy Award for her short story collection, The Start of the End of It All. Her new novel is a beautifully written, allegorical tale full of hope that even the most unenlightened soul can shrug off the bonds of internalized oppression and finally see the light. Becky Ohlsen writes from Portland, Oregon.