Sunday, 20 May 2018

Review: 'Skin' by Ilka Tampke

I adore British history. There are so many different time periods, cultures and languages that came together to create the Britain we know now. One of the most mysterious cultures to have populated England were the Celts. An intensely secretive group, all their secrets and mysteries were passed along orally, yet authors and directors have never let that stand in their way of trying to reinvent the Celts. Ilka Tampke's Skin might be my favourite attempt every. Thanks to Hodder & Stoughton and Netgalley for providing me with a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.


Pub. Date: 06/08/2015
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Imagine a world where everyone is born with a 'skin' name. Without skin you cannot learn, you are not permitted to marry, and you grow up an outsider amongst your own people. 
This is no future dystopia. This is Celtic Britain. 
It is AD 43. For the Caer Cad, 'skin' name determines lineage and identity. Ailia does not have skin; despite this, she is a remarkable young woman, intelligent, curious and brave. As a dark threat grows on the horizon - the aggressive expansion of the Roman Empire - Ailia must embark on an unsanctioned journey to attain the knowledge that will protect her people, and their pagan way of life, from the most terrifying invaders they have ever faced... and it is this unskinned girl who will come to hold the fate of her people in her hands. 
SKIN is a standout, full-blooded debut which invokes the mesmerizing, genre-transcending magic of novels such as Jean M. Auel's Clan of the Cavebear; it combines epic storytelling with a strikingly unique plot set during a fascinating period of Britain's history.
As I said above, many authors have tried to capture what they think the Celts were like. We see shades of them in old, wise, bearded men travelling the country side, for example. They are often tied to the Arthurian myths through Merlin, as well. Tampke does away with a lot of what has been done before and lets what we know of the Celts work for her concept of 'skin'. And perhaps that is why it works. Tampke gives the Celts a defined religion, a shared culture, and thereby makes them less vague. And before I go into reviewing the rest of the novel I want to spend some time discussing the idea of 'skin' in her novel. It is a mystical, mythical thing, and yet it is deeply tied to every single moment of her character's day. It's how you greet people, it is how you declare love, it is how you know you belong. It is deeply religious but it is also social. It divides people, and the exclusion of those without has almost racial undertones. Tampke lets Roman and Celtic culture clash in Skin, but she doesn't shy away from showing some of the progress of the Romans and the darker sides of the Celtic culture. All in all, Tampke creates a fascinating portrait of a long-lost culture which feels tangible and real.

Ailia is what centres this novel. Although Skin could spin out of control with its combination between historical fiction and fantasy, Tampke puts Ailia solidly in the middle, holding both the "real" and the "other" world together. She is a young girl, aware of her skin-less state yet burning for more. She is dedicated to her adoptive mother and sisters but she is also still looking for a home that is truly hers. What I found most recognisable about Ailia was her desire for more and her willingness to bend the rules for it, yet also her crushing fear that society is right and that she is nothing. Told her whole live she has no right to anything and she should be happy with what she has been given, her drive and desire are at the heart of this novel. She is surrounded for this by a plethora of fascinating characters, many of which are interesting female characters with their own motivations, fears and desires. As Ailia plunges further and further into the mysteries of the Mothers and discovers her power, the novel's quick but solid pace drives the reader forward, desperate to find out what will happen with Ailia and those she loves. Her mystical experiences were my favourite parts of the novel, elevating it above historical fiction into something mythical.

Tampke's writing style is almost dreamlike and yet she manages to capture everyday life in the Iron age in great detail. Tampke did a great amount of research into Iron Age Britain and it really shows, whether it's in the descriptions of the clothes, the houses or the stark contrast with the Roman Empire, it all strikes true. And on top of that she adds the fantasy element of her novel, the skins, the Mothers, the Journeymen who can travel between our world and the other. That fantasy is as rooted in detail as the "historical fiction" part of the novel, yet these details feel oddly familiar, as if you've read them before in a myth or legend. The winding rivers that lead girls astray in the woods, the handsome strangers who seem only half of this world, and the rituals of fire and stars. Tampke doesn't fall into the trap of trying to mimic old time-y English, but her modern English serves her plot well, still creating that magical feel Skin thrives off. One thing Tampke deserves major props for is her ending. I don't want to spoil anything but it is a brave ending that both closes of Skin and sets up a number of potential stories for the second novel Songwoman. I personally cannot wait!


I give this novel...

4 Universes!

I utterly adored Skin! I read it voraciously and thought about it when I couldn't read, wondering where Ailia would go next, what she would do. Tampke creates a magical world in her novel, bringing to live Iron Age Britain in an engrossing way. I'd recommend this to fans of Historical Fiction and Fantasy.

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