Mandy Haggith’s new novel is a wonderful blend of history and fiction. First in The Stone Series trilogy and set in around 320 BC of the Iron Age, the book opens with Rian, a young apprentice healer being trafficked onto a boat about to set sail in the Northern seas. The cruel trader is in search of a man called the “Walrus Mutterer” to snatch back something that was taken from them. Rian endures days and months of slavery at the hands of the passengers of the ship. Slowly readers see her enthusiasm to learn healing being stripped further and further back, leaving a tired and hollow shell of a person left behind. The struggles of young women are viscerally brought out by Rian’s treatment at the hands of the mysterious Pytheas the Greek, who is also aboard their ship.
The novel leans on a lot of facts from the accounts of the travels of Pytheas of Massalia, the first Mediterranean person to circumnavigate and map the island of Alba (Britain). Pytheas’ accounts of his travels have not survived, but have been quoted by later authors. As a focal point, this is a very engaging crux on which the series is based and, because of the point in time where the first book ends, I felt hooked as a reader into the continuity of the plot and the anticipation for part two.
There are parts of the book, though, that move in a slightly repetitive fashion. Rian’s suffering stretches on and on until it feels like more of the same, especially the part where she is working as a farm hand. Regardless, the skilful weaving of Celtic folklore and ancient history push the story forward, and Haggith’s lucid language is lilting and comforting. A highlight is the narration of the voyage itself, with its evocative descriptions of the northern seas, unforgiving and relentless and the final culmination and showdown between man and nature. With this carefully crafted opening, The Stone Series looks to be a thoroughly enjoying read.