Recap #69: Up the Airy Mountain by Debra Doyle and James Macdonald
Title: Up the Airy Mountain by Debra Doyle & James Macdonald (Bad Blood series) (podcast)
Summary: Valerie Sherwood is a werewolf. That doesn’t make her high school social life any easier. Good thing her boyfriend’s cool with it. But tonight she’s followed her nose into more trouble than she knows, and the question stops being can she save her friends and becomes can she save herself.
Considering we only just found these books about a year ago, my excitement over this additional short story is as extreme as if I’d been waiting for more for the past thirty years. I love Val and this series and this world so damn much, and I am thrilled to get to spend one more month recapping it.
(Val and friends have previously shown up in Bad Blood, Hunters’ Moon, and Judgment Night, all recapped earlier this year. )
The story opens with a great line: As soon as I put down the phone on Saturday morning [Freddie] knew that Val was planning to get herself killed.
Doyle and Macdonald are generally pretty great at first lines, and obviously I am biased because of how I already feel about Val, this series, and this world, but that is just perfect, both perfectly Val and a great way to capture the reader’s attention.
Val found a place that didn’t smell right while she was running under the full moon the night before, so she’s going to check it out in the daytime. Freddie wants her to wait for him, because he thinks she considers herself basically immortal, and he knows she’s not, so he wants to be along for the ride to keep her from getting herself killed. It is a little weird to be in Freddie’s head instead of Val’s, but I do enjoy getting to see her from someone else’s perspective.
This is how Freddie describes Val (besides the fact that she’s his sort-of-steady-girlfriend, which is generally more of a label than Val gives it, and so I laughed at them):
Val is a werewolf. It means she can’t eat pizza because of the garlic; she’s always hungry because all that supernatural healing ability, strength, and speed have to get their energy from somewhere; and she doesn’t approve of the Lone Ranger because of those silver bullets.
This is both a fantastic description of Val, and also a really sly bit of humor. I quite enjoy that in this series, and I’m glad to see it carries over to a new narrator. (Though, I’ll admit, so far there’s not a ton of difference between Val’s voice and Freddie’s, which is unfortunate from a character stand-point, but actually works for me because one of the things I love best about the series is Val’s sharp wit.
Anyway, Friday night was the full moon, and they missed a school dance because Val was off “running through the hills and howling.” (I swear, I’ll try not to quote everything, but I am giddy over being back in this world, and highly entertained.) (Also, this gives us a vague setting for the story, which must come before book three.)
He picks Val up at her house, and she looks great as always in a long blue coat, high boots, and a red knit cap and mittens; he thinks she’s far too classy for a guy with farm dirt on his boots, and he feels lucky that she picked up. FREDDIE. You are winning my heart, because you adore Val almost as much as I do.
Val directs him down to the school, which surprises him, but really shouldn’t because all sorts of supernatural badness takes place around their high school in particular and high schools in general in these teen genre books.
Freddie shoulders his backpack (filled, of course, with all sorts of anti-supernatural weaponry, some of which tends to work and some of which doesn’t), and asks if she came by the school Friday night. This makes her blush for some reason, but she brushes it off as she was just running and following scents, the way she does. (UGH, the werewolf stuff in this world is so well done, I can’t get over how much I love it.) The dance was over when she got there, and most people were gone, but she saw a couple leaving together. One was a guy she didn’t know, but the other was Candi Ellison from her homeroom.
Val looks a little ashamed for a moment, and admits that she doesn’t know her that well because she lives on the other side of town and her family is kind of strict. Freddie’s not sure where Val is going with this, and asks if they went out necking or something. ADORABLE use of the word necking.
Val says that’s what she wants to find out, and they need to follow her tracks from last night, which head across the baseball field and into the woods backing it. She then jumps and eight-foot fence with ease, because she is the greatest werewolf to ever werewolf and I love her so much. Freddie seems to feel the same way.
Freddie spots her prints first, and asks if they’re hers, even though he feels ridiculous a moment later, because it was either her or the biggest dog he’d ever seen. She makes fake barking noises and says “It sure wasn’t Lassie in duck boots.”
It’s at that moment that Freddie realizes that she’s actually very scared, because she cracks wise when other people would be screaming, which is consistent with her in other books and also is one of my favorite things about her. God, Val, I love you so much, and I love how Freddie is clearly also besotted with.
(Get it together, Wing! This is supposed to be a snarky recap site.)
Freddie starts running through his mental list of things bad enough to scare a werewolf, and starts getting nervous himself, which is smart. (I do wonder if this takes place before book two, even, and so they don’t know about vampires, either. It’s not really clear, though I guess I could look up publication dates.)
The wolf prints converge with two more tracks, this time boots, and the strides match perfectly even though one set is much smaller than the other. He asks if the guy was taller than Candi, and Val has to think about it, because of course she has a different perspective when she’s running as the wolf. (Freddie’s impression is that how things look isn’t all that important to her during the full moon, because of course it’s not, more great world building, oh my god have I said enough times how much I love this series? Because I love it a lot.)
Finally, she says he was taller, but he smelled funny, so she followed them. It takes her even longer to answer that question, and it makes perfect sense, because she’s having to translate from wolf thoughts and reactions into human memories and then into human concepts. This was interesting enough from Val’s perspective, particularly in book two when she was submerging herself into wolf thoughts to escape vampire control, but it is also pretty great from an outside perspective.
Eventually, she says he smelled like nothing she’d ever smelled before. Freddie says that’s not particularly helpful, but he’s lying a little, because it does rule out both other werewolves and vampires, but there is a lot more weird things in the world. (That answers whether this is after book two, then!)
They follow the three sets of prints into the woods. There’s thirteen acres behind the school that’s still wooded over, because any time developers try to buy and develop it, they end up in a legal tangle until the plans get dropped. That is interesting, and sounds potentially like supernatural interference via the legal system. I’m intrigued.
Val gets more and more nervous as they walk, and then they find the spot that is freaking her out: the guy’s tracks change from boot prints to something smaller, rounder, and split up the middle. Cloven hooves.
I have hearts and stars in my eyes and I had to take a little break to dance around the room with joy and excitement. (And a little because I’m listening to ZZ Ward’s “Move Like U Stole It.”)
Freddie consider all the things that have goat hooves, some of which make werewolves and vampires look like kid stuff. Oh, Freddie. Your scientific, analytical approach to the supernatural brings me great joy.
She says that he didn’t actually change size at all, and he smelled exactly the same, then flashes him a grin filled with teeth. He knows that’s another sign she’s not as calm as she’s pretending to be, and that’s another little werewolf detail that has filled me with joy and glee and love for this series and these authors.
Val then says it gets even better, and they follow the trail (boots and wolf tracks and cloven hooves, and I’m left giggling) until they reach a natural clearing. The hoof prints and the boot prints stop dead, just flat disappear. Val didn’t see what happened, because it was dark and she wasn’t too close, but the smells got so weird she couldn’t handle it, and the wolf brain took over with a flight response. Of course, that explains why she came back as soon as she was human again and the sun came up. Freddie and I both know that she can’t handle being scared and it makes her reckless. Another thing I love about her.
Freddie, meanwhile, thinks fear is nature’s way of shouting that you’ll be sorry if you keep going. Oh, Freddie. You are also a delight. He’s curious enough now though that he’s hooked on this mystery, and wonders if something could have blurred Val’s vision but not her sense of smell, something that didn’t want people to see it coming and going, but didn’t think an animal would remember the scent trail later, something that “hadn’t counted on a werewolf hanging around out back of Hillside High School on a Friday night.”
(That sentence is so simple, and yet so pack full of characterization and humor and engaging writing. I am trying to learn from Doyle and Macdonald, because this series is great.)
Freddie has an idea, though he doesn’t like it much. The moon hasn’t even been down more than two hours, and Val is closer now to what she was last night than she’ll be until the next full moon, so he asks her to sniff some things from his backpack and tell him if anything smells like what she smelled the night before. (Apparently the enhanced sense of smell is the first part of the change to arrive and the last to leave, which is even more great werewolf world building. I LOVE THIS SERIES SO MUCH.)
Freddie is pleased that his weak idea makes her smile (though he uses “lame” which is a shitty ableist slur when used like this); in fact, her smile makes him feel like he’s come up with the Master Plan to Save the Universe, capslock of importance his, and I am so charmed by how much he cares about her and her opinion of him.
He has her try sulphur first, but it’s not that, which rules out “sulphur and brimstone”; he’s glad for that, because that would be a bigger problem than he really wants to deal with. (Oh, honey, just you wait until book three.) Then they work through: rose petals, salt water, hydrochloric acid — basically everything he’s carrying but the garlic oil.
(Because, as you may remember, werewolves are violently allergic to garlic in this world, a detail I — sing along if you know the words — love so damn much.)
Toward the end of it, she says that red rowan berries smells the same, and another piece of his theory clicks into place. (Though we don’t get to see much of it yet, even though we’re in his head, which is annoying and feels like sloppy writing, forcing him not to think about it where we can see just to keep the reader in the dark.)
But Freddie shares his theory with Val (and therefore us) next: he thinks Candi has gone off to Fairyland. (Capital letter again his.) He starts talking really fast before Val can start laughing:
You know, the good folk. The people of the hills. ‘Up the airy mountain, down the rushy glen–’
‘We daren’t go a-hunting, for fear of little men,’ Val finishes.
(Their third grade teacher, Mrs Esterbrook, really loved that poem. I am impressed that they remembered the poem, but even moreso that they still remember the teacher’s name. I certainly didn’t remember most of my elementary school teachers’ names by the time I was in high school.)
Val keeps quoting, about how the fairies stole Bridget for seven years and when she came back, all her friends were gone, which is the part that Val always found super creepy. Oh, Val, that just makes me love you even more!
Freddie says that he thinks Candi is going to spend what feels like one night with the guy dancing and partying and having a good old time, and when she gets home in the morning, she’ll find out it’s really been seven years, or twenty, or a hundred.
God, that is terrifying.
Val, of course, makes a terrible joke about how they’ll all be dead of old age and there’ll be a flying sauce factory where the high school used to be and Candi will have no job skills whatsoever, because Val is really worried now.
She, of course, wants to help her, because Val is a damn hero pretty much all the time.
Freddie points out that it looks like she went along of her free will, which won’t make helping her any easier. Though when Val pushes, he does admit that the fairy guy probably didn’t explain it all to her, and she just went along to a party.
Val tells him he’s the expert, and absolutely trusts that he’ll know how to get Candi back. Val’s faith in him, even though he’s always flying by the seat of his pants (and in book two, a good half of his bag of tricks didn’t actually work), is touching. I love how she trusts people.
He says they have two options: one, they can spend the next month getting ready and wait for the next few moon, or — and Val cuts him off, of course, because she wants to go now. Reckless, he thinks, but I think driven and brave. (And, okay, a little reckless too.)
Freddie tries to pretend he’s not making everything up as he goes; he’s read everything in the public library on occultism, the supernatural, folklore, and fairy tales, and more than half of it is useless. I’m surprised their small town has that much stuff in its library.
He pulls out a ball of twine, and since he doesn’t know what unit he should use to measure it, he cuts off a convenient length, and then uses geometry to inscribe a triangle around the snow where the footprints vanished. He uses three wooden pegs to anchor the corners, one of oak, one of ash, and one of bitter thorn.
I love how damn prepared this guy is all the time. Most of the time it doesn’t work, but at least he’s trying. I appreciate that. Though he brushes it off as just being prepared when he talks to Val, he admits to himself that it’s just good luck that he has the stakes; he ordered them from the same specialty catalog he used when he ordered the rowan berries. He then sights along the triangle and ties more string to the tree behind and the tree ahead, where the trail would have gone if it had continued.
They’re going to recreate the night before and see what happens; his theory is that maybe there is a gate and maybe it’s still open. Val is to hold the string in her right hand, he’ll hold it in his left, and they’ll match their steps to the footprints in the snow. They’re also going to carry the rowan berries against in their fists, against their bare skin.
Freddie can feel when they step into the triangle, because it makes his back teeth hurt, which he thinks is his mind trying to interpret a sensation that wasn’t supposed to be physical in the first place. That’s pretty good logic and world-building, again. When he thinks too hard about the feeling, it goes away. I love it.
They cross to the other side of the clearing, and at first, Freddie doesn’t think anything happened, but then he notices the wolf tracks are gone and they can pick up Candi’s trail again. Val tells Freddie she doesn’t think they’re in Kansas anymore (which is a failed quote from Wizard of Oz, of course; it’s usually quoted like that, but the actual quote is “Toto, I’ve a feeling we’re not in Kansas anymore”). Freddie puts the rowan berries back in their tinfoil packet for when they need them later, and warns Val not to eat or drink anything, or they will own her. She references Persephone, of course, and Freddie is concerned because of Val’s huge werewolf appetite, but he trusts her. She wants to know what happens if Candi’s already eaten or drank something, and he admits they may be out of luck.
The cloven tracks don’t go far before they drop down onto four legs, which is pretty damn freaky. Freddie figures Candi got the hint then (god, I fucking hope so!), because her tracks split off and her stride lengthens, like she’s running. She tripped, landed in the snow, and then started running again.
After that spot, more footprints appeared, coming out of the woods, all different sizes, the shoes flat and smooth, not the waffle-print pattern of winter boots like Candi wears. The new tracks caught up with Candi’s, and after the cloven tracks joined that spot, Candi’s tracks don’t appear any more.
Freddie urges them to move quickly. He’s trying to figure out just how long they’re going to spend in Fairyland; if one night is a hundred years, one minute is nearly two months, and he’s worried they’ll have been missing for ages and have a lot of explaining to do.
On the other hand, if time really worked like that, they would have arrived nanoseconds after Candi did, and there wouldn’t have been time for all the running and chasing. At the very least, time seems to pass normally; it’s possible that instead of time being different, you just don’t age in Fairyland, and you don’t notice because you’re having too much fun.
They follow the tracks to the end of the snow, and Freddie says they can’t track someone where there’s no trail. He’s sort of relieved, even though he doesn’t want to admit it. Val’s got this, though; they don’t need to track them because she can smell them. Her voice sounds funny, and when he looks at her, he sees her face is lengthening in the nose and jaw and she’s growing fur and whiskers and long, sharp canine teeth. Freddie’s taken aback by this; she’s a pretty girl and a handsome wolf, but she’s always been one or the other, not this strange half-and-half business. A new way to werewolf, because Fairyland isn’t their world. I love it!
Val leads them into a new spot of woods in winter, where ice hangs on the tree branches even though the ground is bare, and the clearing is full of creatures, ranging from almost human looking to full on animal, with a lot of half-and-half like Val. Many of them have fangs, too, which is not reassuring at all.
There’s music all around them, more tones and harmonies than the two or three creatures with musical instruments could possibly create, and it’s a great rhythm to dance to. Even Freddie starts to tap his foot.
Candi’s right in the middle of it all. Freddie finally admits to himself he’s not actually been sure who they’re following; there are a number of girls in Val’s homeroom. But once he sees her, he remembers her, and isn’t at all surprised he couldn’t picture her, because she’s a quiet, washed-out sort of person who doesn’t make much of an impression. He thinks that she’d have been an easy target for a handsome stranger. Cold, Freddie. Probably true, but cold.
But as Val would tell him, he knows none of that mattered. Candi is human, everyone else isn’t, and they didn’t tell her the truth before they whisked her off to Fairyland. Val is fucking amazing, y’all. AMAZING.
It’s going to be hard to rescue Candi, though. She’s stripped away her coat and boots and is dancing barefoot in her party dress on the freezing ground, and from her expression, she’s basically on another plane of joy.
When Freddie asks Val who’s going to break up the party, he finds her rocking on her feet to the rhythm of the drums and pipes, her eyes strange and bright, and she’s breathless with the idea that they’re all like her.
OH VAL. MY FUCKING HEART.
Freddie immediately tells her that werewolves are a real-world supernatural phenomenon and they’re definitely not in the real world, but Val says it looks real enough for her and starts forward. He tries to stop her, but she is, of course, too strong, and surges into the dancers.
Freddie stares after her until a girl with bright yellow hair and golden eyes takes his hands and tries to lead him into the dance. He’s about to go, but then her tongue flicks out between her lips and it is forked like a snake’s. He reminds himself that none of them are human except for him, Candi, and Val, and when he sees her again, Val’s not looking particularly human either.
He heads for Candi first, and tries not to move to the beat while he goes, but it is difficult. When he finally reaches her, she recognizes him, and he’s glad that she will never know he had trouble recalling her face. She talks about the wonderful party, and he tells her it’s time to go home. He tries to show her that things are very wrong, but she can’t seem to hear him. Instead she asks him to dance with her for a bit and they’ll leave by morning; she also doesn’t hear him say that it is already morning.
He’s distracted from that when he sees Val at the edge of the dancing holding a wooden cup in her hand, ready to take a drink. He races through the dancers in a panicked sprint and slams into her so hard she drops the cup. Val grabs him before he can fall, and looks more like a wolf than ever; she snarls at him like a wolf, accusing him of doing that on purpose. He’s close to yelling when he tells her of course he did, she can’t eat or drink anything there!
Val’s eyes are greenish yellow when she snaps that maybe she wants to be stuck there. Freddie admits he’s thought of that, but he didn’t believe she’d be that stupid. (More ableism here.) Val says it’s not, though, because she’s not human, she’s one of them, or at least the next thing to them.
Freddie tells her that she’s a human girl and he loves her, startling both of them, because he’d never said anything about love to her before. This is such a great moment, a tense, dramatic, emotional scene, for all its sparse writing and the shortness of the story.
That stops Val long enough she can sort of shake free of the spell of the music. He says it’s time to leave, and she wants to know what they’re going to do about Candi. Freddie’s not sure if he was able to get through to her (UM, FREDDIE, the answer to that is pretty clearly NO NOT EVEN A LITTLE). Instead of trying again, he pulls out the packet of rowan berries. The moment he opens it, time stops and the dancers too. The only people still moving are Freddie, Val — and Candi. Without the music, she looks cold and forlorn, and she wants to know what happened.
He gives one rowan berry to Candi, one to Val, and keeps the third for himself. Wait, you only bought three damn berries? First of all, that’s mighty convenient! Second, that’s not being very prepared, Freddie.
The berries are protecting them at least for a little while, but they quickly walk out of the clearing, into the woods, back to the tracks, and then to the triangle of string. He tells them to hold the rowan berries, hold hands, close their eyes, and walk in a line straight through the center of the triangle. How exactly are you going to do that with your eyes closed and no rope to guide you?
Val is more concerned about what will happen if she doesn’t change back when they get out. Freddie acts confident that won’t happen, and she sort of believes him, though she also jokes about taking a job with the fairies if it doesn’t, which just goes to show how tense she is. He snaps at her for joking around, because they have to be focused to do this. Candi meanwhile realizes that her parents are going to be furious with her for being out all night even if she doesn’t start spouting stories about fairies.
Anyway, Freddie passes out more rowan berries (ah, so he does have more! Certainly not the impression earlier), and they hold hands so they are each holding hands with the other two, like spokes of a wheel. They close their eyes and start walking, though I am even more unconvinced than ever that they will be able to walk in a straight line like that.
Freddie tries to keep his mind blank, but it is difficult; the walking is harder, too, as if they’re moving against a current, and the triangle seems gigantic compared to how it was when he first made it. Halfway across, one of the hands in his pulls free. He doesn’t dare open his eyes, and he can’t tell whose it is, but he says they can’t stop, if they stop they’ll never get home. No one answers.
(Also, earlier he said Val was getting claws. Look, dude, either you can tell whose hand is in which of yours, or you know the claws have retracted and therefore things are working, one or the other.)
They reach the far edge of the triangle, and Freddie can feel them stepping through. He doesn’t want to open his eyes, but forces himself to do so. First thing he sees is Val, who has her own face again; she’s looking backward at the triangle in the snow. Candi’s gone.
We get a great little exhange between them:
Val’s face had the angry look she gets when she’s too upset to cry. “All that trouble, and then she had to turn around and go back–!”
“Face it,” [Freddie] said. “Candi never wanted to leave in the first place. She looked like she was having more fun there than she ever did at home.
“I was having fun back there, too, and I didn’t decide to trade in the real world for a hundred years or so of dancing all night with Mr. Goat Foot and his Fairyland pals!”
Maybe not, but she’d come close. [Freddie] didn’t think right now was the time to say that, though, because Val had left the party with [him] when [he] asked her to, and she hadn’t looked back.
I love that in stories, where one person has to deeply trust another, particularly the stronger person trusting someone else, where they literally or figuratively have to close their eyes to the world and just follow, never looking back. And this is a gorgeous, compelling version of that.
Val trudges along for awhile, obviously upset, and finally asks what they’re going to tell people when they ask them what happened. Freddie points out no one will ask because neither of them were at the dance. At most, everyone will think Candi walked to the state highway and hitched a ride to the coast — and with a family like hers, no one will blame her. I think that’s probably a bit much to say considering how little information we the readers actually have about Candi, but I love this story and these characters and this world enough I’m going to let it go.
Freddie is starting to feel a bit down, too, and it’s not just the aftermath of the adrenaline of adventuring; he’d been the one who talked to Candi, and he’d left her standing alone the moment he noticed Val was in trouble. And he can’t stop thinking about how glad he was that Val wasn’t the one who decided to stay behind.
Then this fantastic ending:
Snow was starting to fall again. By midday, the tracks would be gone.
Story title and, of course, the bit of poetic quoting they do is from “The Fairies” by William Allingham.
I am utterly charmed by this addition to the world, even though I generally am bored half to death by fairy stories. I was leery about reading a story from Freddie’s point of view instead of Val’s (and his voice truly isn’t that different from hers), but it ended up being a lot of fun to see his perspective on her, and to have him gushing on about her in a besotted way the same as I do. I love that Candi stayed behind, though I think her rough homelife should have been built up a little more for Freddie’s cover story to actually work, and I adored how Val is tempted away by the fairies for awhile, because they are like her, and at this point, she’s very, very alone as a supernatural creature. All the other werewolves she knows are either dead or gone, and the same with the vampires (who were mostly terrible anyway), and she’s so different than the human girl she was before.
And I love that Freddie loves her, though I’m not sure this actually works with how Val talks about him in Judgment Night. Ah well. I loved the story, I’m going to let all my frustrations go.