I have spent quite a lot of time in Finland, but I have never gone further north than Jyväskylä. There is a lot of Finland further north than that, but it is not all Finnish. The far north of Finland, and for that matter the far north of Norway and Sweden, and parts of Russia too, are the home of the Sami people. When I was a kid we called that place Lappland, but that is a name given to it by foreigners, by conquerors. These days we know the people there by their own name for themselves: Sami.
The Sami are an old culture. They have herded reindeer in their northern home for at least 5,000 years. They were there when the Finns and Scandinavians arrived, long before there was such a thing as going viking. When Christianity arrived in the Northlands, Sami culture was suppressed. Now, at least in Finland, it is free to flourish once more. Thankfully there are still people who remember parts of it.
Ante Aikio (to give him his much shorter Finnish name) is a reindeer herder. These days the Sami herd reindeer in part to entertain tourists. Ante is in the tourist business. His father was a singer of joiku, the traditional songs of the Sami. Ante has followed in his footsteps, but he has gone much further. He has made it his life’s work to resurrect Sami folklore, and to bring those stories to the wider world.
Aigi: Fathoms of the Fenlake, is the first book in that project. It tells part of the saga of Aigi, a mythic hero who is both warrior and shaman. As a sorcerer, he is able to move between worlds. He can dive into lakes and visit the Saivo, a magical realm inhabited by the elf-like Gufittar and gnome-like Ulda. He can also travel to the Lovi, the world of dreams.
There are gods of sorts in this world. There is a great mountain called Ulda-Fell. Good spirits live on one side of it, and evil spirits on the other. Termis, the thunder god, has created a great canyon down the center of the mountain to keep the two sides apart, but they quarrel endlessly. In particular both seek to capture the first ray of sunlight on the first day of spring. The forces of good, led by the good fae Njevazan, need that sunlight to banish winter. The forces of evil, led by the evil fae Hahtezan, seek to capture it and prevent summer from happening. Only the speed of Njevazan’s ally, the Golden Arctic Fox, keeps darkness at bay.
Hahtezan is a particularly nasty piece of work. You can tell this because she has a giant dung beetle for a pet, and because she is responsible for creating the most evil of all creatures, the mosquito. She is, of course, an ugly old hag. You can see the pock marks on her face when she gazes down on the world at night.
The first Aigi story in the book (aside from his origin tale) is a short one in which Hahtezan kidnaps the Golden Arctic Fox. Aigi and his faithful reindeer, Njaiti, have to take its place and race the wicked giant, Stallu, to save summer.
The other story is a much longer one in which Aigi is asked to rescue a Gufittar princess who has been kidnapped by an evil witch. The story is bittersweet because the princess, Risten, was Aigi’s childhood sweetheart. However, her father had promised her in marriage to a prince from another Gufittar clan, and Aigi had to give her up. Of course none of the Gufittar are brave or resourceful enough to challenge the witch, so Aigi must rescue his lost love and give her up again.
Along the way we meet Sarri, an elderly Ulda shaman. He helps Aigi by taking him into the past through the Lovi so that he can watch the moment when Risten is abducted and work out how to find her. It is an almost science-fictional episode.
Also in the story are the Water Draug, a Gollum-like figure who lives in an underwater cave, and various skaimmadas — kings of various fish species who grow to incredible size and sprout a crown of antlers.
Of course the stories are deeply rooted in Sami culture, and we learn a fair bit about that as we read. My favorite thing in this respect is the Sami unit of distance, the reindeerstreak. That is the distance that your reindeer can run before it has to stop to pee.
Ante wrote the book in Finnish, and it has been translated into English by Ville Miettinen. The translation does contain a number of errors. My favorite is the use of “obvious” when the translator clearly meant “oblivious”. Also, as is inevitable with Finns, characters are occasionally mis-gendered. But this doesn’t distract from the story. Although the book is being marketed as a fantasy novel, it reads like a re-telling of a folk tale. Of course that’s exactly what it is, and it is better for remaining that way.
Mind you, I’d love to see a graphic novel series based on these tales. Partly, I’m sure, that is because Ante has sourced some truly beautiful illustrations of many of the leading characters. You can find them, together with much more information about Sami mythology, at his company’s website.
Ante tells me that there will be more books in the series, as we have only begun to be introduced to Aigi’s life story. I’m looking forward to the next one. Will Aigi and Risten ever get together? Will Aigi finally confront Mirku, the evil witch who killed his parents? (Sorry Batman, fridged parents are a very old idea.) Whatever happens, I am sure that there will be interesting adventures and marvelous creatures along the way.
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