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Mountain of Ashes
A Labyrinth of Souls Novel
by John Reed
Shadowspinners Press, $11.99
Published: March 2019

Matt Thanos, grieving the untimely death of his wife, Emily, plunges to what should be his death when his motorcycle goes out of his control. Instead he comes to his senses in an underworld of torments and dangers: corpse bogs, flesh-eating lizards, fire and ice. Then, in the literal dark that blinds his eyes and the figurative dark night of his soul, a voice calls out to him, urging him to live and escape, and it is Emily’s voice. However, it is unclear whether she is trying to save him or punish him. Does she still love him, or is she still pissed off? Dare he trust her voice? Does he have any better guide in this hellish place?

Both Matt and Emily have behaved badly, yet there are subtle, understated indicators that they are both at heart decent people who truly love each other. So what went so spectacularly wrong? And was her death really an accident? For that matter, was his fall?

One of the gradually told backstories is the role a third person played in orchestrating the disasters that befall them, even to the corruption of their spirits. The snake who poisons Matt and Emily’s relationship has such complex motivations that I found myself thinking, “Oh, so that’s why…” only to realize, “Oh! There’s more!” This triangulated conflict intensifies in a gratifying sequence of confrontations.

As a purely modern romance with recognizable, modern themes and tropes, Mountain of Ashes succeeds, engaging our faculties of recognition. If one savors classical allusions, it is enjoyable to recognize that John Reed has undertaken to tell a variation of Orpheus and Eurydice — complete with venomous snake. He also takes up some of the same questions that Euripides, the original bad boy of Athenian drama, dared to air on the Greek stage. Do gods actually exist? What is their nature? Are they inherently good, or merely powerful? What if they are capricious, or predatory? And just what do they need humans for?  The deities of Mountain of Ashes, Raava and Vaatu, are ambiguous. Certainly they are powerful, archetypal even, but they are not very nice. Nor are they creative, nor sufficient onto themselves.  On the contrary, they need sustenance. 

This leads us to a quality that distinguishes John Reed’s writing: his capacity for humor, often at the oddest moments. From the opening line: “A hundred feet down the cliff, Matt Thanos decided he didn’t want to die” to the near slapstick portrayal of self-styled deities playing Whoever Collects the Most Toys/Souls Wins, the narrative flashes with Rabelaisian humor that balances out the more dire elements of the story. I find this immensely refreshing.

What I love best about Mountain of Ashes is the depiction that we cannot save ourselves by our own efforts alone, nor we can we be saved by others’ efforts without exerting ourselves.  Beyond that, it helps to exercise the classic virtues, and be just a little bit zany. This is, after all, a story that has as its other inspiration The Fool card from the The Labyrinth of Souls Tarot deck and card game designed by Matthew Lowes and Josephe Vandel.  The LoS project is managed by Elizabeth Engstrom and Christina Lay, who publish the stories through ShadowSpinners Press. Mountain of Ashes is part romp, part quest for redemption, part defiance of the insidious, invidious elements that entangle us when we are susceptible. Part of the time I was thinking, “How does Reed come up with this stuff!?!” and other times, “Oh, thank you!” — Chris Wozney

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