“Patchy” – Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott  

IMG_2022-6-20-102807The setting: 500AD, Londinium, known as the Ghost City, because it has lain derelict and deserted for four hundred years following several wars, ‘sicknesses’ and ‘fires’. These events are never explained or put into any kind of comprehensible context, so the reader can only surmise which of them might have some historical basis and which are entirely fictional. Some of the city’s depletion will have been due to warring factions during the latter part of the Roman occupation, but others can only be speculation.

Two sisters, Isla and Blue, are hamstrung by the legacies, traditions and beliefs of their ancestors. They are in constant fear of angering the gods by doing things they shouldn’t. But they are, arguably, also young girls ahead of their time, who don’t simply accept the ancient edicts without questioning their fallibilities. When they find themselves without parents — their mother having been taken by raiders before the start of the story itself, and their father dying at the very beginning — they need to grow up fast if they don’t wish to fall victim to the barbarities of Lord Osric, the warlord of their people and their father’s employer. Their father, known to all as the Great Smith, made the swords for the men of Lord Osric’s household. Each sword he made for Osric himself was more beautiful than the last.

Of the two sisters Blue, the younger by three years, is more grounded and better equipped to deal with life’s challenges. Isla, by contrast, is irritatingly fatalistic and naive and shackled by past beliefs and traditions. Here she remembers one of her grandmother’s wisdoms:

“Nonor always said that the Fates don’t carve, they weave. Isla does her best to make sure her sister always remembers that. The Fates take the threads from the things we do. Nonor would say, the choices we make, big ones and small ones, all of them, they weave them in and out, through and under, all the time. They never stop their weave. But they can only use the threads we give them. “Every choice we make in this life, Isla,” she’d say, “changes the pattern in that cloth”.”

Long ago Lord Osric banished their family to an island in the Thames, a deed that angered the sisters’ father for the rest of his life. Believing Seax Kin Law dictates that their father’s employer has a duty of care to them and will offer them Kin Protection, the sisters take a boat across the Thames to the gates of the Ghost City. Their arrival at the warlord’s palace coincides with several ominous sightings which send Lord Osric’s soldiers into overdrive and their uncle, Caius, tells them the warlord is highly unpredictable and there is no knowing what he might do. From here on the plot becomes ever more fantastical and unrealistic as the girls engage in a series of super-human escapades, running away from various threats — real and imagined.

Aware of the potential dangers they face, as young girls and, now also as orphans, Isla and Blue keep their father’s passing a secret for as long as they can. Commonly women are not permitted into forges, but their father secretly taught Isla how to make sword blades and before departing from the island she is able to finish the last sword he’d been working on before his death. She hopes that presenting it to Lord Osric — claiming they are doing so on their father’s behalf — will help their cause.

Isla remembers what her father taught her about the nature and behaviour of fire and how essential it is to creating the perfect blade:

“The first fire colour that comes in after you light the charcoal and draw down the bellow arm is pale straw. Next comes yellow, brown, purple and then the blue comes in like the night goes out; first dark, then pale. Isla knew that she had to keep the fire between the purple and the dark blue so that the blade would bend and not crack when it cooled.”

It reminds her of the story to how she and her sister came to be named:

“That’s why Father had named Blue Blue. She was the blue in the fire he tended, the magic that made the blade. Isla was just Isla, named after Nonor, their grandmother. She had to prove herself like the steel. She always had to prove herself.”

For a while Isla and Blue are effectively held prisoner in their quarters in the warlord’s palace, commonly known as ‘the Rookery’. Eventually they find the courage to escape their confinement and, with the help of a few of the women living and working at the palace, they’re able to find a semblance of purposeful existence within its walls and grounds. Isla, however, is riddled with guilt, believing she has brought the curse with her which may endanger her new friends. The curse is her penance passed down by the gods for having worked in her father’s forge.

Deciding she has to make her own way in the world in order to protect her sister and their friends she secretly leaves the Rookery one night, but Blue  comes to find her once she realises her sister has disappeared without telling anyone. Together they go in search of Crowther, an old woman, seer and mentor to the women living in the Rookery who has been missing for some time. When the sisters return to the palace alone they find the women celebrating the ‘Night of the Unburied’, an event commemorating those who have passed into the next life.

“It made Isla shiver to think the Unburied Ones so close, just out of sight, behind trees, hiding in huts and mead halls, everywhere, all the time, laughing and pointing at the living people. It wasn’t respectful. Knowing the gods were watching from somewhere was bad enough, but we must be walking through the Unburied Ones all the time, she thought.”

And here Blue recalls one of Crowther’s sayings:

“This little life of ours is like the flight of a sparrow. There’s dark on either side of it. We can’t see the before and the after, now, where we come from and where we go. But one day we will.”

The novel ends with an outrageously contrived scene which belies everything ever recorded about the bravery and violence of ancient warriors or the submissiveness of women in those eras.

The question about whether its author intended Dark Earth to be historical fiction or largely fantasy with just a sprinkling of historical authenticity never quite goes away. In truth, it fails being either one thing or the other. Its premise and plot are promising enough, but their potential is left unfulfilled in the telling — at least for this reader. The narrative jumps between past and present tenses — sometimes even within the same sentence — with eye-watering speed, making the writing feel choppy and amateurish. In a writer of Stott’s alleged calibre this is surprising and disheartening.

Any Cop?: Patchy. The beautiful jacket sadly cannot make up for what the book’s content lacks.

Carola Huttmann

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