N.M. Browne has given us a taste of our own history in her novels Warriors of Alavna and its sequel Warriors of Camlann. In her latest book, The Story of Stone, Nela lives in a world quite different from the one we’re used to—slaves who are part of an ancestrally bonded race; shaven-headed non-women who have sworn themselves to celibacy and therefore are able to enter “men’s” professions. Nela herself is a young non-woman—she dreams of becoming a Findsman like her father, locating and researching fragments of past history, despite the seizures she has suffered since childhood.
As in Browne’s other books, Nela finds herself abruptly drawn into history; on a research expedition with her father, his creepy colleague, and a slave, Nela touches the surface of a smooth stone artifact they find and sees a vision of the past. But it’s not just history in general—it’s a specific person’s past. She’s seeing someone’s memories.
Nela’s story in the present, dealing with the unexpected problems presented by an unwanted marriage proposal and a surprisingly handsome and knowledgeable bonded slave, alternates with the story of Jerat, a boy from the past, who lives with his clan in a Tier House. In the Tier House live the chieftain—Jerat’s father, his four wives, the Brood Trove—all the children of the chieftain, and assorted warrior types. In Jerat’s world, there is a race of people known as the Night Hunters, reputed to be dangerous and evil, connected with the moon goddess. But if you keep one captive, legends say, they will wish with their entire being to be free, and in so doing, change the very fabric of the world. In that moment, claim the legends, the captor’s deepest wish will also come true.
The two stories are cleverly alternated so that the reader is constantly wondering who the mysterious memories in Nela’s stone belong to, and how they are connected to the story of Jerat. As tension builds in the past with Jerat becoming a warrior while taking care of two of his young brothers, tension also builds in the story’s present. Nela finds that her non-woman status is invalid and her father has agreed to marry her to his colleague, dashing her dreams of becoming a Findsman. The only person on their expedition who listens, who seems to care, is the increasingly mysterious slave. But how can a slave help her?
As it turns out, both of them help each other—but I don’t want to spoil the story. This was such a well-built world, with so many fascinating elements drawn from what seemed to be Celtic or Pictish or otherwise ancient British and European history. I was absorbed right away by the level of detail that was accomplished with relatively few words. Browne’s writing has a crispness to it; she builds a fully realized world without bombarding the reader with wordy description, and this amazes me. I enjoyed her Warriors books, but I really fell in love with this one.