I finished this novel last night, Tamke’s first and, I fervently hope, not her last. I loved it. It’s a classic identity quest, combined with a magical love story, set in Iron Age Britain or Albion as it was called then. Our heroine is Ailia, a foundling saved and raised by Cookmother, finding a place within the village instead of being cast outside to be a fringe dweller. She is well loved, but skinless.
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.
Skin is the organising system, like a clan, and without it Ailia is ‘half-born’ and therefore unable to be a full participant in the life of Caer Cad, her village, or indeed of any village in Albion. She’s a very bright child, gifted with a quick mind and hungry to learn – but, skinless, she may not. She can’t marry; at death she will not be sung to Caer Sidi, land of the dead. She can however, work and unusually for a skinless person, she is in the service of the Tribequeen.
And so the quest is set – Ailia’s most fervent wish is to learn and therefore she must find her skin. With no place to start the search, after all, she is a foundling, she is stymied before she begins. Life goes on. Alia comes of age at menses and so can participate in Beltane, the great festival in which life and joy are freely, wildly celebrated. Here the journey really begins. She chooses and is chosen by Ruther, the glamorous, clever knave just returned from travels in the Roman empire. His is the voice of progress, the future – he wants the Tribequeen, Fraid, to parley with the Romans poised to invade with massive force (and from our place in time, we can see the wisdom in his reasoning), but the old ways – commitment and service to The Mothers who created the world, the independence of the tribe – is strong, sacred, the stuff of life and the threat of loss of freedom and loss of tribe knowledge is too great a price.
‘What do you make of the new trade taking hold at the eastern ports? I hear it is very lucrative and the Romans exploit it in ever greater quantities.’
Ruther frowned. ‘Of what trade do you speak?’
‘Do you not know it?’ Llwyd paused. ‘I speak of the sale of our men and women to Romans as slaves.’
There was a murmur around the circle.
‘A foul trade,’ said Fibor. ‘Roman slaves are whipped like dogs and owned until death. What snake would sell his own tribesman to such a life?’
Ruther snorted. ’Do not our nobleman – our tribe kings and queens – also have servants?’
‘Yes,’ said Fraid. ‘But their labour is owned, not their souls.’
Ruther wants Ailia to be by his side in the new world and is unconcerned about her skinless state. But Ailia has met Taliesin (who was an actual person in ancient days, a bard of great renown. He is also the basis for our Merlin, from a whole other mythical tale all of his own), who is a deep part of the old world and very attached to the law of skin. They fall deeply in love, adding to Ailia’s quest an urgent need to find a way to be with him.
And so, we have the basic conflict – which path, which man, which life, which future to choose. Above all of this, Ailai is called to the path of the journeywoman, a sacred and difficult path, fraught with danger and potentially deadly to a skinless one such as her. These three threads – identity, politics, love – come together to make a very suspenseful story. Tampke has paced it very well, so it is a page turner, and tried as I did to make it last, I gobbled it up as fast as I could!
I loved the ancient history underpinning the story,- it is richly, sensuously detailed and even woven through with fantasy, the world created is very easy to believe. The fantastical elements feel as if they could be true, and certainly, at a symbolic level they contain universal and eternal truths.
The druid ways, or what is known of them, are woven into the descriptions of the journey path, and the societal structure is true enough to the ancient times; deep religiosity is woven into every aspect of daily life:
I inhaled and told her I had stepped into the Oldforest. I told her of the fish, the drop in the water. Heka’s mark on the fawn and the command of life I had shown that day. The only thing I did not speak of was Taliesin.
She listened round-eyed. When I finished she was grave. ‘You must not go back in. I warn you with all my heart. The Oldforest is dangerous to those without training. I know only little, but I have heard of such drops as the pool you found -‘ She paused, her face taut with worry.
‘What are they?’ I urged.
‘They are holes in our hardworld.’
Women were equal with men in the ‘hardworld’ and superior in the spirit world – after all, Albion is made and governed by The Mothers, not The Father, as is the Roman and Christian world. As a twenty-first century woman reading about the old ways, I can only grieve for what was lost. Or some of it – the ‘giving back’ to The Mothers, a crucial and sacred duty, was a cruel and bloody affair indeed, served up in evocative detail in the very first chapter. And we’re still doing it, sacrificing the natural world, the Mother world, to the lust for power of the many ‘Fathers’ and the cost is still heart-wounding. It’s a very clever work that can make something set in ancient times, spun through with fantasy feel relevant and sharp to todays word. We know what became of the old cultures under the heel of the invaders.
I did wonder if there might be a sequel – Ailia’s story could well go on. This would also make a very good film in the right hands (not Hollywood). Here’s hoping!