Bronze Age MagicA review of Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain (ChiZine Publications, 2014)
By Derek Newman-Stille
Caitlin Sweet’s The Door in the Mountain is a mytho-archaeological story of wonder, blending the mythology of the Ancient Greek world with archaeological settings from the even earlier society of Minoan Crete and populating this world with deep, complex characters. Sweet follows authors like Mary Renault who in works like The King Must Die and Bull From The Sea play with the meeting of myth and archaeology and use this blend to evoke characters whose lives are similarly stretched between the fantastic (through the elements of magic) and the realistic (through their engagement with the very real issues of family, the struggle for a place of belonging, and misinterpretation, which fuels so many conflicts).
My masters’ research was in Aegean Bronze Age archaeology, examining the civilizations Caitlin Sweet explores in her novel, and I was moved by the way she brought these artifacts that I had spent so many years examining to life, mingling them with complex characters who brought a sense of mythic nearness to this ancient world. Sweet was able to animate these artifacts, let them shape the characters she populated her novel with, and express the sort of magic these artifacts inspire in our minds by giving them associations with magical powers. Using fantasy, Sweet was able to get at different truths than archaeology would be able to find, an imaginative truth that these artificers can inspire.
Archaeology is speculative, imagining the lives of people long dead from the refuse they left behind and the places they eventually abandoned, and perhaps it is this speculative quality that led Sweet to imagine a speculative fictional world around these artifacts, to put them into a framework of magic and fantasy and allow them to evoke wonder.
As much as The Door in the Mountain is a tale of wonders, it is also a tale of human experience, focussing at its root on family conflicts. This is a tale of the toxicity of envy in a family, of rejection and the desire for belonging, of power and the loss of control. It is, at its roots, a tale of those everyday conflicts that shape the lives of people and turn them into who they will become. The power of transformation in this novel is not just one of characters who can turn into Bulls or birds (although, of course, they do) of even of characters growing into their magical powers as they discover how they are god-marked, but is also about the way that simple actions, misunderstandings, interpretations, and ideas can change a character, shaping them from childhood to adulthood and determining who they will be and what will continue to motivate, hurt, inspire, and influence them.
To discover more about The Door in the Mountain, visit ChiZine Publications’ website at http://chizinepub.com/books/door-in-the-mountain
To find out more about Caitlin Sweet, visit her website at http://www.caitlinsweet.com/