Perhaps more than any other medium fiction is able to transport you to other times and places – placing you in the company of strangers but making you feel you belong. A consummate example of this is Mandy Haggith‘s latest novel The Walrus Mutterer. Set in 320 BC, during the Iron Age, it follow the trials and tribulations of Rian, a young woman learning her skills as a healer, as well as helping with communal duties, before she is suddenly and unexpectedly sold into slavery. What follows is a depiction of the harsh reality of slavery added to the dangers of life at sea, and often more so in strange lands. The hunt is on for the mythical Walrus Mutterer as Rian struggles to comprehend her new life, and how to survive.
Haggith grabs the reader right from the start. Within pages you are with Rian watching an unusual parade of passengers depart a recently arrived trading boat. The author wastes no time in introducing characters who are immediately captivating – the drunken foster-father Drost, Ussa – a cruel and intimidating female trader, and Gruach and Fraoch who are described as “the dragon man and the dwarf” respectively. And then there is the slim, curious, and clearly out-of-place Pytheas, a wealthy Greek traveller and writer who Ussa says is “Part child and part god and part, I don’t know what”. It’s a cast who you can picture quite clearly in your mind, and once the players are introduced the action begins, in this case with such pace it takes your breath away.
Rian’s future seems fairly set out, living and working in her community, but that all changes as she is lost to Ussa in a game of chance played with Drost. In slavery Rian is treated more like cattle than a human – poked, prodded, and eventually branded, as her new owner tries to decide her worth. Her change in status sees her viewed differently by all, either overtly or less obviously. She finds some comfort and understanding as others on board try to teach her the best way use her talents to persevere and survive. But it is the change in Pytheas that Rian finds most disturbing, although at first she can’t put her finger on why. All she knows is that this man who she once thought she may come to love now disturbs and even disgusts her, a feeling which will prove horribly prescient.
It’s a novel dominated and defined by woman. As well as Rian, whose trials and tribulations are almost biblical in their extremes, there is Ussa who proves to be as bitter and twisted as any of the men, the aforementioned Fraoch whose understanding and support prove invaluable to Rian when she needs it most, the predatory and jealous Maadu whose favours come and go depending on which way the wind blows, and the mysterious and mystical Shadow who provides shelter from the storm. The men pale in comparison, with the exception of the charismatic and poetic Manigan, and singing sailor Toma, whose songs awake something primal within Rian.
The Walrus Mutterer is as much about the present day as it is about the past, commenting on gender, eco-concerns, the environment, and the importance of respect for and understanding of the natural world. It is also about community and the power of folklore, ritual, and song. The language and imagery are rich, poetic, visceral, and often moving. If you enjoy discovering new worlds then this one is as strange and beautiful as anything science-fiction or fantasy has to offer. It is Book One of the Stone Stories Trilogy, and Book Two can’t come quickly enough. Mandy Haggith has created a world which, despite the struggles and strife of everyday Iron Age life, you’ll be keen to return to.