CBR Bingo: Question
Most historical fiction set in England involves a few specific historical time periods: the high/late medieval era (think Chaucer or Thomas Malory), the Elizabethan era, the Victorian era, WWI and WWII. But the early medieval period (the time we once might’ve been used to calling “the Dark Ages”) is less popular, though there have been standout novels set in the era (Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, Rosemary Sutcliffe’s novels such as Sword of Sunset, Bernard Cornwell’s Warlord Chronicles). This period of flux following the Roman withdrawal from Britain is compelling, for a variety of reasons, but most novels focus on the political and martial plots that open themselves in its wake.
Rebecca Stott’s Dark Earth focuses instead, intentionally, on the way this upheaval affected the lives of women. The epigraph of the novel comes from a historical text about the Roman ruins of Londinium (Roman London), where a Saxon woman’s brooch was found on an archaeological dig, an oddity given that Saxons appeared to avoid the ruins of of the Roman city. Stott spins an entire novel, in essence, as to how that brooch might have gotten there, focusing on a pair of sisters, Isla and Blue, daughters of the Great Smith who have lived for years with their father in exile on a river island, where their father forges swords for local warlord Osric. Their mother died in a Pictish raid when the girls were young; instability and uncertainty has shaped much of their lives. Isla is the practical one, who, in defiance of Seax law, assists her father in the forge (he needs her aid to make his rare and precious firetongue swords); Blue is a bit flighty, otherworldly, almost touched. But when their father dies, they must throw themselves upon the mercy of Osric and the Kin Law, hoping he will provide for them to find a way back to their father’s people, but Osric is ruled in part by the whims of his cruel and capricious son Vort, who susses out Isla’s secret and determines to keep her gift for himself, even he if he has to maim her to keep her fastened to the forge.
The sisters instead flee into the ruins of the Ghost City (i.e. Londinium), where they are taken in by a colony of (mostly) women who have also taken refuge in the ruins to escape the violence of post-Roman Britain. A few are escaping the cruelties of the patriarchal world they live in; others are refugees of the tribal wars that rage in the power vacuum that the Romans left. They embrace the sisters, both on principle and for their skills (Isla in the forge, Blue’s knack for healing arts), and both young women begin to find hope and rest–but Isla knows Vort won’t stop looking for them so easily.
Stott does a very good job of evoking another time without getting too bogged down in the details; the fact that the girls’ mother was Iskeni (i.e. the tribe of Boadicea/Boudicca) gives her room to describe clothing styles and hairstyles as a contrast to the Seax/Saxons rather than just as intrusions on narrative. The Ghost City of Londinium is also a delight in which to linger, an eerie but also fascinating glimpse of the Roman world that is already dead and gone, but leaves its artifacts for the women in the ruins as well as for the scholars of the present day. Isla is an engaging protagonist, protective and tender towards her younger sister, but also fearful of the looming shadow of Vort. The religious and social world of the era is portrayed as complex, not merely primitive; the Seax and Iskeni might have been barbarians to the Romans, but their world to them is coherent and textured, which Stott relays to readers beautifully. The relationships she depicts, particularly in the colony of the Ghost City, create a world in which I would have happily lingered for another hundred pages. (Also, the tantalizing nods towards King Arthur–a young king off in the west who poses a threat to Osric and Vort–is equally tempting and frustrating for remaining only a gesture.)
If I have one complaint, it’s that the denouement, when it comes, comes abruptly and feels a touch underdeveloped; this is perhaps a consequence of such a richly-realized world, that the need of the plot to lead us back out of it will maybe always feel abrupt. But I’m glad to have read this, and to be able to recommend it to students who are fascinated with this time period like I am.