Dark Earth, a novel about two sisters primitively fighting for survival in male-dominated Dark Ages Britain, is a tale from Rebecca Stott that combines magic and myth with historical Londinium.
Rebecca Stott is the author of several academic books on Victorian literature and culture, as well as a Professor of English Literature and Creative Writing at the University of East Anglia, including a partial biography of Darwin, and a cultural history of the oyster.
Sisters Isla and Blue live in the shadows of the Ghost City, the abandoned ruins of the Roman settlement Londinium on the north bank of the Thames. The native Britons and the new migrants from the East who have some existence in small wooden camps in its hinterland are concerned that the settlement fear that the settlement ruins are haunted by vengeful spirits.
But this is a place of exile for Isla, Blue, and their father, ‘Great Smith,’ a legendary blacksmith accused of using dark magic to make his firetongue swords. With local warlord, Osric, putting their father under close guard and ruling that he make his magnificent swords only for him so that he can use them to build alliances and extend his kingdom, there’s an unwanted eyeful watch on Isla and Blue. More so, as Isla is unexpectedly capable of also making firetongues, as her father becomes unable. Blue also communes with animals and plants, which gives further reason for the watchful eye.
With the sad death of Great Smith, they find themselves facing possible enslavement by Osric and the power-hungry son, Vort. Their only option is to escape to Ghost City, where they discover an underworld of rebel women living secretly amid the ruins. As they find themselves in the heart of this underground world, it becomes a more interesting and beguiling tale, as we read about a world that has had to establish itself for safety amongst the primeval men of the Dark Ages.
A historical novel, steeped in myth and folklore, Rebecca Stott’s Dark Earth is a tale of determined, vibrant women that fight back against their patriarchal society. This is a story of oppression and power that puts a female perspective on a historical period predominantly told through the male eye. Although extensive, epic and romantic, this historical fantasy novel struggles to hold the attention; had we more time with characters such as Senna and less with the flashback narrative it would perhaps have grabbed further, but despite this, it is a rollicking read.
Dark Earth is published by 4th Estate on 23rd June 2022