It follows the life of Ailia, a teenage kitchen girl left abandoned as a baby and raised by the tribe’s cook, and how her life is affected by the belief of Skin. A spiritual birthing that ties the tribespeople to the land, Skin is passed on by a child’s mother in song and is a significant part of being perceived as a true person. Since Ailia is a foundling she has no Skin and as such is unable to hold any position of authority or be taught the skills required for her to advance to a more important role within the tribe. However, it’s precisely this status of social pariah that allows her to perceive the faults in the druidic philosophies and forge her own path without any weight of expectation or obligation upon her.
The female perspective from which the story is told allows the more spiritual aspects of Brythonic life to come to the fore, and in doing so thankfully avoids much of the tribal warriors’ macho dick measuring that permeates many historical fantasies. Instead, the focus is on the mystery of Ailia’s life and what the answers to questions both tacit and spoken mean for everyone involved, all the while the looming shadow of Rome and the expansionistic campaigns of Emperor Claudius threaten the tribe’s freedom and lives.
Some characters and events come straight out of history texts, but it’s not necessary to, say, recognise Taliesin as the name of a quasi-mythical Welsh bard to appreciate him as Ailia’s first love, or know that Cunobelinus was a real-life Celtic king whose death led to the period of instability that allowed for the Roman invasion. The seamless weaving of the historical with the fictional and the fantastical is what gives the story its magic, and the equal importance placed in all aspects of it mean that it feels just as natural for Ailia to giggle about boys with her friends as it does for her to hold the attention of earth goddesses.
The book itself feels like a written historical account of the physical and spiritual experiences that ultimately shape Ailia from girl to young woman as she fully realises the destiny that awaits her, implying a story that will be retold over generations and centuries, growing ever more fanciful with each iteration until she transcends into a figure of legend like Cadwaladr or King Arthur. At its core, Skin is a young girl’s coming of age story, but its resonant prose, distinct characters, thematic depth and emotional sensitivity all combine to form a tale as evocative as it is compelling.
SKIN / AUTHOR: ILKA TAMPKE / PUBLISHER: HODDER & STOUGHTON / RELEASE DATE: AUGUST 6TH