Dark Earth

Written by Rebecca Stott
Review by Helen Johnson

AD 500, and sisters Isla and Blue sit on an island in the Thames, watching the tide creep up on the Ghost City, formerly Londinium, across the water. The girls live on the island with their father, the Great Smith, maker of the coveted ‘Firetongue’ Sword. Chapter by mesmerising chapter, we discover that the Great Smith was exiled by the Kin, but is protected by Osric, Lord of the Saex. In exchange for his protection, Osric demands Firetongues—one after another. Isla’s father needs her help. But it is forbidden for a woman to enter a forge. When their father dies, where can the girls go? Isla must protect her younger sister. But no one must discover that she knows the secret of the Firetongues.

Stott mingles myths, archaeology, tropes from post-apocalyptic dystopias, and feminist coming-of-age stories. Underpinning it all are the myriad beliefs, ethnicities and cultures in the melting pot of London—as diverse then as it is now. Stott’s writing is skilled, maintaining a constant sense of mystery. Her triumph is Blue, a character full of ambivalence. Blue is ‘touched’—but touched by what?

I have to say that Stott’s research of myth and belief is better than that for crafts and trades. She seems to be under the impression that Roman underfloor heating involved lead pipes. Her herbalist makes tinctures, unlikely as distillation of the alcohol required wasn’t known in Europe then. The range of metalworking skills possessed by Isla seems improbable. Stott’s portrayal of a post-Roman collapse of civilization is very different from most Dark Age historical fiction. Whether it is a truer depiction of the reality of the times, we could only know if we had a time machine.

But, it’s a cracking read. Recommended for lovers of fantasy adventure.