The year is 500 AD. Sisters Isla and Blue live in the shadows of the Ghost City, the abandoned ruins of the once-glorious mile-wide Roman settlement Londinium on the bank of the River Thames. But the small island they call home is also a place of exile for Isla, Blue, and their father, a legendary blacksmith accused of using dark magic to make his firetongue swords—formidable blades that cannot be broken—and cast out from the community. When he dies suddenly, the sisters find themselves facing enslavement by the local warlord and his cruel, power-hungry son. Their only option is to escape to the Ghost City, where they discover an underworld of rebel women living secretly amid the ruins. But if Isla and Blue are to survive the men who hunt them, and protect their new community, they will need to use all their skill and ingenuity—as well as the magic of their foremothers—to fight back.
With an intimate yet cinematic scope, Dark Earth re-creates an ancient world steeped in myth and folklore, and introduces us to unforgettable women who come to vibrant life on the page. A heart-in-mouth adventure full of moments of tenderness, this is a beautiful, profound novel about oppression and power that puts a female perspective on a historical period dominated by men’s stories.
What’s it about (in a nutshell):
Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott is a historical fantasy story inspired by a broach left in an abandoned Roman city long after the Romans disappeared in what is now England. Two sisters, Isla and Blue, have been exiled along with their father, The Great Smith, because of accusations of using dark magic. When their father dies, they must fend for themselves in a world where women have no rights and brutal men are everywhere.
Initial Expectations (before beginning the book):
I really wasn’t sure what to expect with this story. I knew it was historical fantasy, and the setting is the dark ages, making me wonder if it was the time of Arthur and Merlin. I know the Dark Ages was a very violent time and a time when women were treated as spoils of war and fell victim to raiders. The cover reminds me of Ancient Roman artwork, so it seems as if there is some Roman influence, which brings a lot of mythology with it. When mixed with the magic and myth of Britain, it should make for a compelling fantasy.
Actual Reading Experience:
I was close in my expectations to my actual reading experience. Dark Earth is a stunning story of survival and empowerment in a world where women struggle to be treated as humans. It felt very authentic and well-researched, and I think I loved that about it the most. I’ve always had a fondness for history, especially from the classical period through the Middle Ages. The Middle Ages is particularly fascinating given how little recorded history there is to go by, unlike the earlier classical period. When the Roman Empire collapsed, it was followed by a millennium of instability, barbarism, and plagues, the likes of which today, we can’t even begin to imagine. Myths, legends, and lore were used to further power and changed to suit the church’s and other leaders’ needs.
In this world, Isla and Blue were allowed a freedom few women knew, and in that freedom, they developed a strength that they would need to survive once their father died. The sisters are very relatable, and each has some magical abilities that they aren’t allowed to talk about or acknowledge because that would mean certain death. The strength these two young women show throughout the story is what drives this tale told in third-person narration.
The plot is somewhat loose, but a definite good versus evil theme holds it together. The girls lost their mother in a raid right before they were exiled and discovering what happened to her drives them and the story. But, as I said, it’s not a strongly focused plot. This, though, in no way detracts from how engaging and empowering the story is. It kept my focus all the way through, which is never particularly easy.
The characters, though engaging and relatable, are not particularly well-developed, but they are, however, each unique and endlessly fascinating. The story is character-driven, so I would have loved to have seen extra layers of development in the main characters. The support characters are also intriguing, with abundant admirable qualities, so they are easy to rally around.
What It Reminds Me Of:
Dark Earth reminds me of other women empowerment fantasy stories, such as The Women’s War by Jenna Glass and When Women Were Dragons by Kelly Barnhill, with the incredible historic atmosphere found in stories such as Jennifer Saint’s classic era stories – Elektra and Ariadne.
To Read or Not to Read:
Suppose you are as fascinated as I am by the dark ages and love a good women’s empowerment story. In that case, Dark Earth is a story that you will find spellbinding and engaging. You won’t want to end your summer without reading it.