Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott

A stunningly vivid, elegant historical fantasy that recreates Londinium after the Romans

Dark Earth
Author: Rebecca Stott
ISBN-13: 978-0008209223
Publisher: Fourth Estate
Guideline Price: £14.99

Dark earth in archaeology is a rich, fertile soil layer from the post-Roman era that may contain fragments and ephemera of its time. It also serves as a perfect metaphor for the latest work of fiction from the Costa-award winning author Rebecca Stott. In the author’s note that precedes the novel, Stott explains that in approximately AD 410, the Romans withdrew from England, leaving the ruins of the mile-wide city of Londinium abandoned for a further 400 years. In this, “the darkest corner of the dark ages”, the historian and author shines a light.

In AD 500, sisters Blue and Isla are exiled in the Ghost City with their father, a renowned blacksmith with a reputation for dark magic. Upon his death, the women are forced to eke out their survival in this ancient underworld by deploying all their wit, wisdom, talent and, crucially, the magic of their foremothers.

It is a remarkable undertaking to create an authentic portrayal of an unimaginable ancient world on the page when such scant knowledge of this era exists. And yet, it is a testament to the extraordinary imaginative powers of Stott that this artfully resurrected Londinium thrums with life. Extensive research, with forensic attention to detail, has undoubtedly been dedicated to the representation of this forgotten era, but the knowledge is yielded with admirable grace and a powerful instinct for the reader’s desire for balance between world-building and narrative progression.

Stott writes into the silences of the historical record as an act of revelation – what emerges are complex characters, with fascinating stories, who are enriched with a zeal for survival. What we recognise now as a mysterious, shadowy time is their ordinary present, and their lives are rendered with total conviction on the page.

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Stott has created a work of elegant historical fantasy with great intellect, curiosity, imagination and empathy that is utterly compelling. The fusion of the author’s great passions, literature and history, has found a magnificent outlet in this unique and extraordinary novel. No other author would have attempted this challenge, nor could have succeeded in wielding its components into something so powerful. A definite contender for this year’s literary prizes, it is difficult to imagine any reader not becoming bewitched by Dark Earth.

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen

Helen Cullen, a contributor to The Irish Times, is a novelist and critic