Ajjiit: Dark Dreams of the Ancient Arctic, by Sean Tinsley and Rachel Qitsualik, is a collection of fantasy short stories based on Inuit myth and culture. It isn’t often I come across wholly unfamiliar fantasy backgrounds, creatures, or images and it really was a pleasure to wander through the utter strangeness of these stories. They took me places I didn’t expect to go: not to the snowy arctic landscape I imagined, but instead deep underground or even, in one story, to the moon for one of the weirder competitions I’ve seen.
And Tinsley and Qitsualik introduced characters I hadn’t expected to meet: not the polar bears and seals and fishermen I anticipated, but rather half-wolves, crystalline-like cavern dwellers and sword-carrying bee creatures. Though indeed, form is something many of the characters and creatures can don at will, becoming something other than what they began as, and that sense of formlessness, of constant lurking change adds to the sense of both wonder and eerie danger.
The stories are often deliciously dark and sorrowful. Some are true horror stories, but most are more complex and richly tapestried. Even those that end well have a bite to them, are more bittersweet than happy, and many deal with loss in some manner or shape. A few have a bit of a traditional twist to them at the end, but I can’t say I saw where most of them were going. Even the one story I thought was a bit predictable in its close was no less satisfying for its expected ending.
Part of that is due to the language, which I thought was a strength throughout and could probably be best characterized as an arch-formal sort of high fantasy prose, formal in style and word choice and serious in tone, as in this description of one of those form-changes mentioned above:
Now the Qallupiluq dreamt, and it dreamt of her form. Such dreams were not entirely of the Human, for these ran like roots into the veiled Land — that unseen Land which governs even the sea — where they drew upon timeless wells of Strength… It seemed the Qallupiluq was very still for a time, perhaps even asleep, and when the chimera again moved, it stood upon Human feet.
Passages are also dotted liberally, as one can see, with wholly unfamiliar Inuit names and terms. Some of these were clear from context, but I confess at times I groped a bit toward meaning and while it didn’t hinder the reading, I wouldn’t have minded a glossary at the end to have a better sense of some of the vocabulary. And while the high tone works well through each individual story, the collection could have done perhaps with a bit more variety in style. I wouldn’t, for instance, have minded a bit more humor.
The stories in Ajjiit are also enhanced by Andrew Trabbold’s black and white drawings interspersed throughout, some simply evocative and others downright creepy. Which is, as mentioned, appropriate for many of the tales. They are, as stated, based at least loosely on fairy tales and folklore, but these are much more like the original folktales of the Brothers Grimm and not their lighter Disney-fied versions. There is death in numbers large and small, a little gore, and some real menace, as when an abusive Inuit husband tells his wife:
“You know what we say when we don’t like a hunter, Suqqivaa?” he asked her. “We say I should take him seal hunting. That’s what we say.”
Suqqivaa felt the gooseflesh arise on her skin at the murderous references… “Would you like that old wife? Would you like me to take you seal hunting?”
This threat is all the more frightening as it is so concretely realistic, based in the all-too human world of wife killing than the distanced fantasy realm.
As with any collection of stories, some of the nine are stronger or weaker than others, but I can’t say any were truly weak. There wasn’t one I didn’t enjoy, though I had a few favorites, such as the one set on the moon or that involving the strange crystalline underground dwellers. I have to imagine that the well of Inuit folklore is barely tapped with Ajjiit, and would happily pick up a second such collection in the future. Recommended.