“He was as dazzling and unfathomable as the night sky: in equal measure splendid and despondent, vital and injured, tender and cruel. He had an Elder’s wisdom, yet the wariness of a child, and in the force of these splits, the whole earth turned within his sprawling frame.”
Set in a Pagan Britain yet to experience the rough hand of Roman rule, Ailia’s story is one of magic, politics and becoming more than you ever dared to dream was possible. Born in body but not in soul, Ailia is skinless. Without a totem animal to guide and protect her spirit she is forbidden to take part in the ceremonies that bring her people together and form the structure of their lives. She has found herself in a privileged position in the Tribesqueen’s kitchen, but it comes at the cost of never being permitted to learn, to marry and never knowing who she truly is. With her peaceful village on the cusp of a brutal Roman invasion, she must quickly learn to find the courage and conviction to rise to the role the Mothers have destined for her.
SKIN is a collision of all things perfect. Ilka’s language is like music, deftly weaving reality and the impossible into one beautiful world. The dialogue feels true to the era yet natural and playful, simultaneously elevated and understandable. Every moment is cinematic, real, alive with colour, texture and sound – from the kitchen to the Mother’s abstract realm, Ailia travels through vivid and fascinating scenes. I could read this book over and over and never grow tired of Ilka’s absorbing prose.
The mixture of history to fantasy is in flawless proportions. I usually shy away from historical fantasy as the courts and queens and servants can be stale and boring, but SKIN takes place in a relatively unexplored era with an original and fresh setting. The research poured into the novel is evident on each page, creating a believable and strongly rooted world.
The overall plot is fairly simple – the threat of Rome hangs directly over the villages head and the people must decide whether to stand their ground or submit to the sheer force of the Roman army. It means sacrificing their deeply set pagan ways and denouncing the Mothers, but it also means staying alive. Ailia is obviously key to this decision in some way, being our protagonist, but there is a sense of reason in her significance and a massive risk in trusting her importance.
There are several side plots which add extra flavour and excitement to the mix – Ailia’s romance with Taliesin is a thing of beauty and her journey as a character and a woman is developed with just the right pace. I often complain about romance in YA and fantasy novels but Ilka has absolutely hit the nail on the head in SKIN. Ailia is both confident and vulnerable, inexperienced yet mature while Taliesin is alluring and frustratingly mysterious, creating a sensuous and intricate relationship between the two.
I savoured the final chapters of SKIN as I just didn’t want that first read-through experience to end. While it would stand as a convincing standalone with the completion of a full story arc, I am absolutely thrilled that a sequel is already in motion. A sprawling fantasy series could easily spring from SKIN, in any case, I hope to read much much more from Ilka Tampke.