Skin by Ilka Tampke

Posted On 5 August 2015

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Just finished reading Skin by Ilka Tampke which is a very unusual and intriguing book.

The story gets off to an immediate and rather gory start – so be warned on that front.  Set in Iron Age Britain around AD 43.  Britain is poised on the brink of Roman invasion and in the village of Caer Cad the locals look to their ancient rituals in order to guide them.

The people of this age were superstitious, they lived by ritual and believed in the sacred laws of nature.  They are governed by laws of skin whereby a mother passes her skin down to her children (not literally you understand!).  The skin to which a person is born rules their future, enables them to learn and to marry and pass on their stories to future generations.    The main character, Ailia, was abandoned at birth and therefore her skin is unknown.  As such she lives outside of the tribe – she cannot marry or learn, not even to swim.  Fortunately she was taken under the wing of the Cookmother and serves the Tribesqueen and she has already been fortunate enough to survive the clutches of death twice for it seems that the ancient Mothers may have use for her.

I don’t want to give away too much about the plot as to be honest the plot isn’t the strongest part of the story.  Not that it’s weak, just it’s not the show stealer.  For me, the writing and the descriptions of life are what chiefly make this novel so captivating.  It’s fairly light on fantasy (at the moment at least) and I would say that the more fantastical elements of the story revolve around the druids of the time, the use of herbs and knowledge of the land.

As I said above the story gets off to a fascinating, if slightly gory start.  The descriptions of village life, what they eat, how they live and the rituals they undertake were really captivating and all written in a simple and lovely style.  I haven’t the first notion as to whether this is historically correct or bears any semblance of real lifestyles during that period but it certainly reads like a well researched and creative account of the time and I found it just hooked me completely.

The main character is Ailia.  We are introduced to her in her early years and given a quick account that brings us up to date when she’s approximately 14 years old.  Ailia, in spite of her poor start in life has led a relatively sheltered life under the protection of the Tribesqueen however she feels greatly the lack of her own knowledge and in fact she can’t even be taught to swim.  Ailia is headstrong however, she has the gift of healing and has caught the eye of the ancient mothers – she longs to be a journeywoman but her lack of skin prohibits this.  I liked Ailia although I confess she doesn’t always make the wisest choices – given her age I guess you could forgive her a little in that respect as she is only very young by our standards when she is given such a large burden to bear.  She’s going to go down paths that should not be open to her and whether or not this will work out well remains in the balance.

We have a number of other characters.  Heka, a bitter woman who plagues the life out of Ailia relentlessly.  Ruther – who would take her for his wife and cares not for her lack of skin and then we have the mysterious Taliesin who catches the eye and heart of Ailia.

This is a very entertaining read with secrets waiting to be revealed and plot twists that I didn’t see coming.  I really enjoyed seeing the strong roles that the women of the age played and I thought watching these tribespeople as they stand on the brink of change made for compelling reading.

In terms of criticisms – nothing really to bring the book down.  I thought the start of the book was probably the strongest part of the novel although it ends on a good note with the prospect of more good reading to come.

I received a copy of Skin from the Publishers through Netgalley for which my thanks.  The above is my own opinion.