Dark Earth by is rooted in the history of post-Roman Londinium, the Dark Ages of which few facts are known. It traces the fate of two sisters, both confound the expectations of the time. Isla is a smith, Blue a mystic. When their father dies they must adapt to survive. Set around AD 500, these sisters have been living a self-sufficient free life with their father, a Great Smith, on a small island in the Thames. When he dies, they cannot stay. Isla finishes her father’s commission, a special ‘firetongue’ sword for the local lord and overseer Osric. Women are forbidden to work as smiths so the girls must deliver the sword without admitting their father is dead, their aim is to gain the protection of kinship. But a violent act forces the sisters abandon their plan and they flee Osric’s camp.
They hide in the Ghost City, the abandoned riverbank settlement that belonged to the Sun Kings and is now home to a secret women’s community. As the girls are hunted by Osric and his son Vort, they are torn. Should they stay or run. Stay sheltered amongst this supportive group but unable to venture beyond the walls of the Ghost City, or protect the community by leaving it and leading their attackers away. The sisters have different tasks during the day which means they see each other less and become exposed to new influences. Isla establishes a forge while Blue forages for herbs and learns about healing. Romance adds complications to their big decision, stay or go. Will the sisters remain united or, as they become adults, will they make individual decisions taking them in different directions.
In places I was overwhelmed by description with so many historical and folklore details that the setting seemed to blur and the narrative pace slowed. More a fantasy novel rooted in history than a historical novel with fantasy elements, Stott has creatively imagined the unknown time in which Isla and Blue live. The country during this period was occupied by a variety of settlers, knitted together by essential trade but separated by beliefs and violence. Little fact remains. Perhaps there would be more clarity if each group were given their historical name, ie Romans rather than Sun Kings. Trying to guess who was who distracted me from Isla and Blue’s story.
This is a story about sisters in an ancient time who grow from being inseparable to having their own motivations, desires and conflicts. Told from a modern female perspective with few rounded male characters, it is an atmospheric read, slow in the middle but which raced towards the end. An end that neatly connects the Ghost City to today.
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If you like this, try:-
‘The Invasion of the Tearling’ by Erika Johansen
‘Children of Blood and Bone’ by Tomi Adeymi
‘The Silence of the Girls’ by Pat Barker
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DARK EARTH by @RebeccaStott64 #bookreview https://wp.me/p5gEM4-5SB via @SandraDanby