Northwords Now Issue 38

The FREE literary magazine of the North

The Amber Seeker

Mandy Haggith, Saraband, 2019

A Review by Helen Sedgwick

The Amber Seeker is the second novel in Mandy Haggith’s remarkable Stone Stories trilogy, set in Iron Age Britain and Northern Europe in 320 BC. The first instalment, The Walrus Mutterer, introduced Rian, a young woman living in the Scottish Highlands who is enslaved and taken to sea by her brutal captor, Ussa, and Ussa’s unlikely traveling companion, Pytheas of Massalia. The Amber Seeker changes point of view to show us these events, along with what happened before and after, as they appear to Pytheas – a real historical figure and Greek explorer who comes to life in this deeply convincing portrait of a complex, flawed, infuriating, fascinating man.

    Pytheas’s story begins before he meets Rian – a meeting that will have lifelong consequences for them both – at a time when he has left his home in Massalia (modern day Marseille) to journey north in search of the sources of tin, amber and northern ivory. He describes himself as seeking knowledge above all else, though this, and many other things besides, highlights the extent to which he is unreliable as our narrator. He is prone to make excuses for himself, but he also meets people from new cultures with an open mind and a genuine desire to learn what they might have to teach him, and in this way he is a thoughtful guide as he leads us through Iron Age Britain and beyond.

    In one particularly striking scene he travels underground to a cave where tin is mined, capturing magnificently the darkness, claustrophobia and fear of being trapped under the earth. Later, having travelled east across northern Europe and found himself abandoned and captive, there’s a scene I found similarly terrifying, this time set in the open air, the cave’s darkness replaced by the violence human beings are capable of.

    The story feels immaculately researched, though the lightness of touch ensures the events and characters are never weighed down with detail. One of the joys of reading was coming across snippets of information about the characters we met in The Walrus Mutterer and their Iron Age world. Haggith has written two books that succeed in feeling totally different but inescapably intertwined, and it has left me eagerly anticipating the third in the trilogy.

    But what I keep coming back to is the character of Pytheas himself; the way at times I felt a furious disgust towards him while at others a deep sympathy, even an uncomfortable kinship. His interest in science, in learning, is so all consuming he sometimes forgets about the human beings around him. His journey is undoubtedly brave but his behaviour can be cowardly. He listens to other people and always tries to avoid violence, yet he is capable of treating slaves and women as though they are less than human. This he excuses with the knowledge that other men would have done the same. It would be easy, then, to dismiss him as a man of his time, but for the fact that he was so extraordinary for his time. In taking what he wants with such arrogance he perhaps behaves like other men of his time, but he also has the ability to see – tragically too late – how profoundly wrong it was to do so. His is the story of an explorer who does the unforgiveable, but deep within it is a powerfully feminist core.