Born to the skinless, or lost to their families before naming, the unskinned were not claimed by a totem. Their souls were fragmented, unbound to the Singing. If they remained little seen, they were not despised, not usually harmed. The townspeople gave them enough grain, cloaks and work, if they would do it. But they could not live within the town walls because no one could be sure who they were.
Skin was gifted from mother to child by a song.
I had no mother. I had no skin.
But I had been spared. Just.
It is AD 43, and the British tribes of the south west are starting to fear the consolidation of the Roman invasion, begun 100 years earlier. Ailia is a British girl, growing up as an outcast among her people — as a foundling she does not know her family, and so does not belong to a totem, and a crucial part of her identity — her Skin — is missing. Caught between the inevitable Roman domination and the ancient traditions of the land, she must find her spiritual place in her tribe in order to lead them through the uncertain times. But how can she have any authority when she has no Skin?
To echo this dichotomy, Ailia is also (somewhat predictably) caught between two men. She is instantly attracted to Ruther, a warrior who has been to Rome and is impressed by its glory. He wants to make peace with the Romans and submit as a vassal state, but Ailia is hesitant, because she knows that those who follow the ancient religions (druids, although not so named in the text) as she does are not treated well by the invading forces. She also falls for Taliesin, a man trapped in the spiritual world by the ancient goddesses, and her searching for him leads her to discover her destiny.
It sounds like a cliche to say that I liked Ailia because she is flawed, but in the course of the story she makes some terrible decisions that adversely affect everybody around her, and the narrative does not absolve her of these — she must live with some really awful consequences. As a result, Skin has a real emotional depth that belies its appearance as an ordinary coming-of-age magical adventure story. And despite the two love interests, most of the emotional interactions in the book are between women — Ailia’s family of adopted mother and sisters, as well as the queen of the tribe, the leader of the druids and the goddesses themselves.
Given that we don’t know much about druids’ religious beliefs and practices, Skin gives a compelling and believable mythology. Iron Age Britain is drawn really well, and the more horrifying aspects, such as human sacrifice, are not glossed over, and cast a gruesome shadow over the rest of the book — we see the Romans as the enemy, but are they really worse if they want to outlaw such practices? Familiar landmarks such as Glastonbury Tor also appear, and I only realised at the end of the book that the land referred to as ‘Summer’ is actually Somerset. The time of widespread uncertainty in a Britain on the cusp of so much change makes it an excellent setting for a fantasy story, and I’d be interested to read more books set in this time — if you know of any please let me know in the comments! In any case, Skin ends with a neat setup for a sequel (although it’s subtle, and I think Skin would work well as a standalone) so I’m looking forward to reading more set in this world.
Skin is out in paperback on 16th June, and is available from Amazon. In the US it is published as Daughter of Albion.