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Excellently written YA/Fantasy Fiction/Historical Fiction/Dystopian Apocalypse with Lit Fic knobs on thrown in for good measure

SkinWell. Ilka Tampke is an Australian writer, and Skin is her first novel. And what a strange, but excellent novel it is.

Skin is set in Britain, and specifically in Summer (Somerset) between AD 28 and AD 43 in a matriarchy. Iron-Age Britain, a Druid culture, and the might of Rome preparing for invasion.

The central character, Ailia, born in AD 28, is some kind of outsider, and part of the book’s journey is to find her complex destiny, which will bring her to become a leader of her people. Ailia’s age, and her intelligent nature, her individuality and leadership qualities of course suggest the book has a YA market, with Ailia as a role model to identify with. There are also strong young men who are leaders or seers – so heroes of action and heroes of reflection and emotional integrity.

But this is not only a book for a YA audience – it is likely to have appeal for those who are followers of all the heroic myth and fantasy serials which are increasingly popular, probably for a 20s audience.

Celtic knot

Celtic knot

I’m neither of those markets, but was interested in this because although the cynic in me could suggest this might be a book written to capitalise on some populist markets, and is at least a small series (I understand there is a sequel), and the strong storyline and characters inevitably suggest filmic possibilities – the actual writing, not to mention the unusual setting, was the lure.

The exact rituals and beliefs of ancient Druidic culture have been rather lost in the intervening 2000 years, particularly as Rome did not tolerate Druidism, and, Christianity, some 300 years later, after Constantite the Great’s conversion, did much to complete its veiling. I’m not certain, one way or another how much Tampke’s very detailed, fascinating weaving of ‘Druid’ culture and ideology is real, partially real, wholly imagined – but what I will say is there is an absolute coherence in her blend, which is satisfying both in terms of its mysticism and ritual, and it’s very graphic depiction of the world. She has clearly woven into the story a central idea from Australian totemic spirituality (and, I think, Native American Indian culture) that of animal totems, a kind of connection to the rest of the living world which anchors humanity as a part of the animal kingdom and a part of the landscape. I found all those aspects of her possible invention absolutely fascinating and the book is ‘true to itself’ And has that wonderful quality of tapping in to deeper, wider myths. The book as a whole is absolutely ‘the hero journey’ It can be read on many levels simultaneously and doesn’t topple over itself for being made to bear too much.

Iron Age Celtic Des Res Round House

Iron Age Celtic Des Res Round House

If you love adventure stories, particularly fabulous ones which make integrated sense, rather than just being a gung ho collection of mythic or actual battles, I recommend this. I swept through it, turning pages fast, caught up in the story, but also found myself very satisfied with the integrity of her characters, the complex relationships, the believable structures and culture of her ancient society. And there are some wonderful – didn’t see this one coming – twists and turns.

Ailia, her central character is without ‘Skin’ in metaphorical rather than literal, anatomical terms. Skin is the totem tribal connection – her journey to find ‘Skin’ and its meaning is satisfyingly archetypal.

The passage from womb to world was only half a birth – the body’s birth. Our souls were born when we were plunged, as babes, into river water, screaming at the cold shock of it, given our name and called to skin.

Deer. Salmon. Stone. Beetle. The North wind. Skin was our greeting, our mother, our ancestors, our land. Nothing existed outside its reach.

Beyond skin there was only darkness. Only chaos.

Because I was without skin I could not be plunged or named. I was half-born, born in body but not in soul. Born to the world but not to the tribe. I could never marry lest skin taboos were unknowingly betrayed…….I was not permitted to learn. All learning began and ended with the songs of skin

Finally, I received this as a review copy from Amazon Vine UK.Ilka-Tampke-300x200

Even more finally, the hardback book itself is stunningly beautiful, with gold coloured mandala like shapes, suggesting complex artistic metalwork all nudging at symbols of interconnectedness, which underlines much of what the book is about.

Skin Amazon UK
Skin Amazon USA