Jena has the most demanding and in-demand job in the village. Naturally small and unnaturally malnourished, she leads the line of girls who crawl into the mountain to harvest mica, the soft mineral that will light and warm the community through winter. Cut off years ago by a rockfall, the villagers know no world beyond their valley. But the birth of a sister to Jena’s friend, and the discovery of a hand-crafted stone on the mountainside, lead her on a journey that shatters the walls of this isolated society.
McKinlay’s imaginative world-building and intense, sensitive writing evoke a stifling, tightly-knit society ruled by chillingly calm ‘Mothers’ who mediate between the commoners and the mountain they worship. The conflict arising from Jena’s desire to please the Mothers by excelling in the ‘top’ job and her discovery of their deception builds tension and empathy for the brave, confused girl. Her integrity never wavers but shifts focus, as she uncovers manipulation and control. Characters are drawn deftly and sparely; judgement of the Mothers is understated, left largely to the reader and tempered by sympathy for their genuine if mistaken belief that the survival of the village depends on their life-threatening interference with births.
A minor quibble is the predictability of a relationship that makes a revelation at the end a little anti-climactic. That aside, this is a clever, compelling story that fits no obvious genre or easy categorisation and is refreshing and powerful for it.