This is essentially a collection of short stories gathered into one book, telling the life of a single character, Vierra. The setting is the forests and lakes of the far north of Scandinavia, where Vierra’s people live a placid life as hunter/gatherers, moving around their domain with the seasons and ruled by a female chieftain and a female witch, as is normal for their culture. But things are changing; to the south, there are experiments with settlement and agriculture, and from further afield come the Vikings in their longboats, stealing goods and capturing slaves.
Vierra’s people, the Kainu, have a complex spiritual life, built around their environment, and involving poems to invoke the spirits as well as actions. At Vierra’s puberty ritual, she is told of a destiny for her, although it’s clear as the book progresses that this is not cast in stone, and her own actions may affect things. The various stories tell episodes from Vierra’s life, and some of it is fairly bleak, it has to be said. Many bad things happen to Vierra, and she herself changes as a result, losing her faith in the spirits and perhaps losing some of her humanity along the way. She is a compelling character, though, and I raced through the book to find out what happened to her in the end. The other characters are somewhat less rounded, with the possible exception of Rika. Most fall neatly into the good or bad ends of the spectrum.
The book was translated from Finnish, and although the translator has done a good job (this is not a Babelfish travesty, by any means), there is some very stilted and clunky language in places, and one or two words are outright wrong. I had the feeling that the original language was rather elegant and poetic - not just the poems themselves, which crop up frequently, but many of the descriptive passages too, and along the way something got lost in translation. Nevertheless, it was always clear what was meant, and it never interfered with my enjoyment.
Anyone looking for a cheerful read may be disappointed. After all her struggles, a truly happy ending would have been too much to hope for, but it is at least uplifting. It’s clear that’s there’s more to tell about Vierra’s life, so I guess there will be more stories to come. This is a great read for anyone who enjoys stories with a mythological twist, it features a truly strong female character, and it’s set in a time and place rarely featured in fantasy. I really enjoyed it. Four stars.