In the cradle of what will become London, two sisters are forced to fight for their lives – and each other.
Rebecca Stott’s latest novel Dark Earth is a slice of historical fiction that focuses its lens on a pair of siblings who, when their blacksmith father dies suddenly, must contend with their own servitude and existence at the behest of a warlord, in a world where the Roman Empire (here referred to as ‘The Sun King’ and his forces) has long since abandoned the country and the Anglo-Saxons are ruling the roost, complete with their own in-fighting and grasps for power.
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At the heart of Dark Earth is the central relationship between sisters Blue and Isla, two young women who on the surface seem so diametrically opposed that its almost hard to see them as kin. This is of course, part of Stott’s deft character work, peeling back the layers of each woman to explore what makes them a fascinating pair of protagonists (the parallels to Austen’s own pair of chalk-and-cheese sisters isn’t lost on this reviewer). Isla is steady and protective and driven with a secret vulnerability and a physical characteristic that marks her as ‘other’ (in this case, heterochromia), the secret successor to her father’s blacksmith skills; her sister Blue is dreamy and enigmatic, both guileless and coy when required to be, a pair of heroines driven by their fight to survive and their deep, abiding love for another.
The actual story is simple enough – our two sisters are forced to re-engage with the outside world beyond their mudflat exile when their father passes and they’re exposed to the society beyond, including the warring faiths that dominate the tension baked into the novel, like layer upon layer of dense, dark soil. It’s this exploration of faith that proves Dark Earth‘s best through line – the deep rooted pagan faiths battling it out against the encroaching newcomer of Christianity and the stirrings of a Briton from the west who seeks to overthrow Saxon rule. In a relatively short work, Stott manages to sketch out the sense of a nation in its infancy, battling its old golds as they fight for space among the new. in a way that feels both mystical and realistic, particularly as Isla and Blue fight off claims of being witches and to find a new family with equal measure.
In fact, the only real critique of Dark Earth is its ending which fails to expand upon the lives of the players we’ve come to know over the pages. While the closing section has a neat trick in playing with time and the impact that the actions of the novel have into modern history, it would have been a treat to see more of the lives of those left standing by novel’s end; an extra five to ten pages where we get a hint into their lives would have enriched this even more, particularly given that by the end of Dark Earth, we’ve grown to care about Isla, Blue, and their allies.
This is a quibble, however, in what is a mature, thoughtful, and thoroughly enjoyable story that roots the feudal and religious struggles of ancient Britain in a pair of realised, complex heroines. Beyond its explorations of faith, Dark Earth is rooted in and succeeds in delving into the theme of family and kinship, not only in what happens when that family is broken apart, but also in what it takes to bring it back together, reformed and transformed into something different, but still worth fighting for.
Dark Earth is out now from 4th Estate.