The Walrus Mutterer (The Stone Stories)
Set in 320 BC, The Walrus Mutterer is a gripping, haunting and, at times, visceral novel. Rian, a young apprentice healer, is wrenched from her home in northern Scotland and enslaved by Ussa, a ruthless and vindictive trader. Forced to sail the treacherous northern seas, Rian faces hardship and cruelty, not only from Ussa but also from her fellow passenger, Pytheas the Greek.
The Iron Age people of Scotland have left us a few tantalising clues about their history and culture, but much is still open for debate. Filling in those gaps with her lyrical and poetic prose, the author has created a convincing and entirely believable world. She vividly portrays everyday life in coastal ‘brochs’, the rituals and folklore of a pre-Christian society, and Ussa’s cut-throat trading deals, where human lives are bartered for walrus ivory.
It is a world very different from ours. It feels alien, dangerous and unsettling, but the characters are finely drawn and intensely human. Ussa is cruel, but she is also vulnerable to jealousy and fear. Rian suffers appalling adversity, but her kindness and indomitable spirit survive, and the mysterious Walrus Mutterer of the title is deliciously charismatic and intriguing.
Perhaps the stand-out ‘character’ is Nature itself – in the Iron Age, it was a force to be feared and worshipped and appeased. The brooding, all-powerful presence of the sea dominates the first half of the novel as the small boat ventures further into the cold vastness of the Arctic.
It would have been helpful to have a map at the start of the novel so I could follow Rian’s journey, but this is a small quibble. The Walrus Mutterer is one of the best books I have read so far this year. Highly recommended.