The Mountain of Souls (The Chosen #1) – Marcus Lee


Today I am here with a very belated review for The Mountain of Souls by Marcus Lee. This is the first book in his new trilogy The Chosen. I was a huge fan of his previous series, and was delighted to get an ARC for this new one – and then life got very much in the way and here we are.

I absolutely loved this book – and I’ve already nabbed physical copies of the whole series, so keep an eye out for the reviews of the next two books in the (hopefully) near future. It was also a difficult one to review, because so much of the impact comes through the reading.

Disclaimer – I received a copy in exchange for an honest review, all thoughts are my own.

Book Summary:

Only the strong survive!

When Malina is sold at an auction block, she fears life will take a turn for the worse.

But even her darkest nightmares are nothing compared to the reality of what she faces when she’s delivered to the Mountain of Souls.

Thrust into a brutal selection process where failure means death, Malina must train and fight not only to survive but to prove herself worthy to serve.

The risks are deadly, but if she succeeds, the rewards are beyond measure, and a destiny unlike any other awaits as one of The Chosen.

The Chosen. A thrilling and intricately spun Epic Fantasy that weaves a relentless fight for survival into a tapestry full of conquest, deception, magic, and an ancient prophecy that will determine the fate of the human race.

The Review:

‘However, dark forces stand in the way of this happening. From the lowliest cutpurse to the self-proclaimed noble families, evil infests this world. By his will, your task is to lance this festering boil that blights humanity.

How do you survive in a world of absolutes? Of black and white.

Where you are strong, or you die.

Where you obey or you die.

Where everything you have been taught, and led to believe (coerced or otherwise) says one thing, but your heart, and encounters with the world beyond hint at more?

The Mountain of Souls not only asks these questions, but it dives into all the nuances that trying to answer those questions throws up. It stands between that black and white, never truly letting us see which is which, and instead guides us through the grey alongside the characters. It looks at humanity in all it’s form, from the beautiful seeming perfection of the Chosen, to the good men and women trying to do their best in a world and situation that demands them to take actions and make choices they would love nothing more to leave behind, to those who are corrupted whether by their emotions or their actions and choices (or all of them).

‘There’d been no glory, no honour, just two days of slaughter, the ground soaked in blood, tears and shit.’

There is no way to beat around the bush with this book. It is a dark story from start to finish, and it should be noted that particularly in the first half of the book it deals with the frequent and often violent death of young teens; and death and violence is prevalent throughout. As a result this will not be the book for everyone, but what I will say is that these elements are fully integrated into the world and the plot. It is done to ask questions, some less obvious than the others, about child soldiers, about choice when it is between your death and another, about what it can take to make brutality a normality; and what people can accept when everything is done to shape you into accepting something horrific as ‘normal.’ Lee does not shy away from the brutality and the darkness, or the moral questions and debates that are raised – even in this story, where we witness the characters being conditioned in multiple ways to bend into that brutality – we see them question it, the conflict, the stubbornness of goodness and humanity in the face of surging darkness.

‘Hold on to that humanity, Malina, for once lost, it can never be found again. Also, remember that to be wise, you must admit there’s a lot you can learn, as only a fool believes they know everything.’

In so many ways The Mountain of Souls is such a fitting name. From the use of souls through the soul knives to travel back and forth between the Mountain and the locations in the wider world, and the fact that The Chosen are leaving their souls behind when they travel; to the fact that from the very beginning this mountain has been a testing ground for souls. One that is soaked with the souls that failed, and with those that have succeeded by locking away those bits of their souls that still doubt, that ask questions that there might not be answers to, and most likely not answers that they want.

All these elements work so well, and hit home as deeply as they do, through Lee’s choice to have us follow one main POV. Malina is our eyes, our doorway to this world, and of all the characters that we’ve met so far, she is also the most conflicted and because we spend all our time with her, in her thoughts, in her doubts and questions, that adds an additional layer to how we are seeing the world. This is a character who has already survived a fair bit, and we can see how that foundation influences her in this new situation, and because we are so close to her POV, we get to see each and every aspect of the situation on a personal level. We can see how fear shapes a choice, how knowledge gleaned from that early survival helps in the early purges and lessons, we can see the scales that are being balanced every time she is forced to face the situation she is. To escape or not to escape? To help another or not? To ask questions or voice doubts, or remain quiet?

Malina is very much the heart – and soul – of this book. Through her we get to see the appalling events that she endures, and that she participates in, but we also get to see that goodness (whether that be the ability to see in shades of grey against a back drop of black and white, to show compassion, to hope for something more…to love) can endure even beneath such pressures as she and the other Chosen face.

Interestingly, much of the characterisation and character work in this book comes into play when the characters are being pushed against the sharp edge of compliance. The Chosens’ compliance is not taken for granted, despite the situation and what not obeying, or failure would mean for them, and instead we see them being indoctrinated with mantras and orders through what is essentially magical hypnosis, and bound to each other and others through blood magic. It shows an awareness of just how strong humanity – and all that entails – can be, even when caught beneath the crushing weight of what they are being forced to endure. Yet, we get precious moments of questioning, of doubts – and while they don’t linger, and there is an awareness of the conditioning and that they are choosing to listen to it, those moments add a lot to each character.

I do wish we’d got to see a little more of that conflict in the others, although there were hints and moments where the questions and doubts slipped through. However, there were reasons why we didn’t get to see that depth that absolutely made sense to the world and the story, and Malina gave us so much – and it will be interesting to see how that unfolds and whether it unfolds in the other characters in the following two books. There is so much potential, and Lee has shown great skill in characterisation in his previous series so I am content to see where this goes.

Even without that conflict though, we do get a clear sense of the other Chosen both as individuals but also in terms of a group. And I think that is part of why this book does not fall prey to it’s own grim darkness, because we have moments with these characters where they get to act their age, to tease one another and make jokes, to find bright spots against everything they have endured and had to do. Each of our main group were well established, as was Lystra – and I found her changing role with the group another interesting exploration of humanity, from her coldness at the beginning, to the pride and disapproval, to the reaching out later in the book and I was delighted when we got to learn more about her own experiences (it also added to the depth of the world, as it is clear this has been a plan and process in the works for a long time, machinations that run far deeper than one might expect).

The worldbuilding is solid. For much of the book, our setting is limited geographically to the mountain and the islands around it where the Chosen train. This creates a slightly claustrophobic feeling at times but works perfectly with what is happening here – even the world is being used to condition the characters. They are confined to this place in the world, to this safe haven (if you ignore how dangerous the training is), it is their home, their shelter, a place where they can belong with everything they have witnessed and done. So, it is fitting that we spend so much time there. Yet, at no point do we forget that there is a world beyond, events and situations that are developing beyond those shores that are shaping the story, and Lee weaves that it in through a combination of the Chosen learning about their purpose and being taught what they need about the wider world and the ‘goal’, and through having tendrils of the outer world spill into this sanctuary – through battling ships and crews coming ashore, to outsiders being brought in for them to fight.

In the latter part of the book though we see this world opening up like a flower, and even here we see that idea of the mountain and everything about it being a sanctuary being reinforced. I loved the idea of using mirrors and souls to travel great distances, and that the Chosen remained bound to the Mountain by leaving their souls behind and having to gather souls to pay for their return – although I have some questions, about what happens with multiple souls gathered and what else lies in that space between mirrors. But, the idea of having to visualise where you’re travelling too, and having to plan a way out, as well as adapting to life soulless in a world without colour is endlessly fascinating to me, and the scenes where we got to see Malina and the other Chosen in action in that world were some of my favourite in the entire book.

This is dark fantasy against an epic backdrop, and in the latter part of the book we really get to see this come into play, as we get to see more of the ongoing conflict that had been hinted at playing out, and see the Chosen exploring more of the world. Here the black and white is not as clear as it once had, and I particularly enjoyed the sequence with Malina leading the Chosen in helping soldiers who are also good men; and the questioning of whether killing is necessary or whether there is a possibility for another path. In the Mountain of Souls it was easy to contain such thoughts, but it felt very organic to see that disintegrate a little with the meeting of reality – and I have a feeling that will come into play further in the series.

‘Whilst amazing and useful, no elemental mage, through magic alone, can conquer realms or slay heroes and monsters if there are such things. The gods have decisively ensured that no one can challenge them in their halls of plenty.’

The magic in The Mountain of Souls is well done, and Lee has done it in one of my favourite ways – where magic is not a fix-all but a tool, and where there is a cost and limit to it. I would love to have see more of the Ssythlan’s using their magic, but again this is something I feel could come more into play later in the books. However, the sheer variety of uses, even within the limitations of the elements at play that the Chosen could access was brilliant, and such a fantastic tool to give warriors – especially those who were moving between hunting, direct fights and assassination. Malina’s relationship with her magic was unique and fascinating, and did not end up feeling overpowered which had been a concern when it was first introduced, but I liked the idea of the magic having some degree of sentience and her acknowledgement of that.

The ending was interesting. I had half-expected a cliff-hanger of some sort, as Malina was being pushed and pulled in so many directions, dancing along the edge of the grey zone between what she had been trained to do, what she believed in, and what her heart was telling her. I was right in one sense, but as with so many aspects of this book, Lee brought it to a crescendo that caught me by surprise even though in retrospect it makes perfect sense considering where Malina’s path had been taking her – and has left me needing to get to the second book asap.

Lee’s writing is as compelling as the story itself, and he does a fantastic job of weaving together all the different elements and giving the feeling of a boulder racing down the hill and gathering moss, as this is a book that hits the ground running and doesn’t stop. Everything is brought together, as the tension and momentum build – whether in the moments of action, or the quieter character moments – and it created a book that was incredibly difficult to put down. There were a couple of transitions, particularly with the second to last purge that threw me a little. I can understand why they were done that way, especially when it has already been built into the narrative that these characters lose time as they are trained and conditioned in their sleep, but it pulled me briefly out the story on a couple of occasions. However, given the speed at which I was always pulled back into the flow of the story it is a minor gripe at best.

The Mountain of Souls is not always an easy read, and with the topics that it covers it will not be for anyone. However, in this book, Lee has crafted an incredibly compelling story and a surprising exploration of humanity. An incredible start, to what promises to be a favourite series.

Purchase Links:

Amazon UK | Amazon US


If you’ve read it, or read it in the future, please feel free to shout at me about this fantastic book.


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