Book: “Skin” by Ilka Tampke
Publishing Info: Consortium Book Sales & Distribution, October 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: Edelweiss+
Book Description: Southwest Britain, AD 43.
For the people of Caer Cad, ‘skin’ is their totem, their greeting, their ancestors, their land.
Ailia does not have skin. Abandoned at birth, she serves the Tribequeen of her township. Ailia is not permitted to marry, excluded from tribal ceremonies and, most devastatingly, forbidden to learn. But the Mothers, the tribal ancestors, have chosen her for another path.
Lured by the beautiful and enigmatic Taliesin, Ailia embarks on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced.
Review: I believe this book was self-published a few years ago (or published from a smaller, independent publisher?), so I wasn’t aware of it until I saw it and its sequel, due out in January, pop up on Edelweiss. Always in the mood for historical fiction and intrigued by the unique time period in which this was set, I was quick to request it! And while it was darker than I had expected, the beautiful writing and gripping story swept me along in a quick read-through.
Ailia has grown up living a half-life. Her mysterious origins left her without a skin, an identifier by which tribes connect to each other and their land. Without this marker, she exists outside of the normal structure of life, unable to fully participate and with a large question mark looming over her future. But when their quiet life is interrupted by the threat of war, Ailia journeys far and wide to not only find her own place, but to save her people.
This book was a bit hit and miss for me. But if I’m honest about it, the “misses” are likely just personal preferences at the moment and maybe not being in the correct headspace for some of the darker elements of this story. To start with the good stuff, however! The first thing that really stood out to me immediately was the beautiful style of writing. This book was very reminiscent of Juliet Mariller’s writing, and I really couldn’t give out a better compliment than that! It is lyrical and heart-wrenching, perfectly painting the picture of life in this early part of history in Britain. It’s the kind of thing that is hard to pin down; somehow the style of writing itself lends a sense of atmosphere to the story.
I also really liked the setting and time period of this book. It’s set in early AD Britain where Roman influence and invasion has been ebbing and flowing for a while. I don’t know much about this time period, so I can’t speak to the historical accuracy of the story. The author does include a good note at the end which does detail some of the historical influences behind the work. But beyond that, again perhaps due to the strength of the writing, it was easy to sink into the time and place being presented, even when elements of this life felt completely foreign.
I also like Ailia as the main character. The book is written in first person from her point of view, so it is quick and easy to fall into line with her character. While the general outline of her story isn’t the most original (outsider comes into her own power as a central figure in a growing conflict), I was still invested in her arc throughout the story. The idea of “skins” was also very intriguing, especially in connection with how Ailia sees herself and how other see her.
Now for the downsides. This book is dark. Very, very dark. Right from the start the reader is thrown into a pretty violent scene. And given the nature of the story, the lifestyle, and the growing conflict, this violence does continue to pop up throughout the story. Typically I’m not overly squeamish about violence, and it never felt gratuitous or glorified here. In fact, I would even say that this violence was part of what made the book feel so grounded in the time period and events that it was trying to depict. So, again, I think it was largely that I was just surprised by it and wasn’t in a good emotional place to read about some of these topics. Perhaps re-reading it later I wouldn’t struggle as I did here. And other readers may not have the same qualms I did.
My one other struggle with the book has to do with the ending, so this is obviously a hugely subjective problem. For me, the ending was of the sort that left me more focused on the grim nature of the story than on the beauty of the writing. It felt incredibly realistic, but it was the kind of reality that I didn’t necessarily want to be left with at the end of a story. I guess I needed a bit more light to counterbalance all of the brutality, and for me, the book just ended on yet another grim note.
It’s hard to rate and review books when you struggle with how they end. Obviously, that’s the last experience I had of the book, and it wasn’t an overly positive one. I’m definitely curious to see where the sequel goes from here. There is a chance that, depending on how that book goes, the ending of this one might be retroactively improved for me. And all of this to say, my qualms with this one were very much based on my own preferences. Overall, the writing, story, and characters are all strong. It was just too much darkness for me. Readers who aren’t put off by that and enjoy atmospheric historical fiction (with a dash of fantasy, of course!) will likely enjoy this.
Rating 7: A reader’s case of “it’s not you; it’s me.”
“Skin” is on these Goodreads lists: “Coming of Age Stories” and “Books for the INFJ.”
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