Today I’m sharing my ARC review for DARK EARTH by Rebecca Stott. This historical fiction with fantasy elements occurs during the Early Middle Ages after the fall of Rome. It’s perfect for those who enjoy character-driven stories with strong elements of sisterhood.
Author: Rebecca Stott
Age Category: New Adult/Adult
Publisher: Random House
Publish Date: July 19, 2022
Print Length: 336
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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.
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.
At its core, DARK EARTH is a tale about overcoming oppression and finding community. The official synopsis is a very accurate description of what the reader will encounter in the book. So what you see is what you’ll get.
The writing style was probably my favorite part about DARK EARTH. It has a distant, lost-to-time, lyrical quality to it that I found so unique. It almost felt like I was a ghost hovering nearby, watching the sisters find their own through a system dominated by men. The point of view is mostly third person omniscient, with a bias towards what Isla sees. Blue’s connection to the earth added to the ethereal tone of the story.
The historical fiction aspect was another fascinating facet. Set in 500 AD (i.e., 500 CE), the Romans no longer occupy what we now call England. I wouldn’t dare call myself knowledgeable about what occurred during that time. So it was interesting to see the different cultures of people mentioned in the text as well as the after effects the Romans’ departure had on the land and its people. Essentially, the book alludes to tribes picking up the different pieces of their culture, combining cultures, or carving out a new niche.
Another interesting historical aspect DARK EARTH incorporates is the abandoned city of Londinium. This is where a small faction of women live away from the demands of the area’s despot. Londinium, established by the Romans, is essentially where the City of London is today. The author’s inspiration for the title of this book is from the layer of “dark earth,” or black soil, that accumulated from settlement occupation and lay undisturbed for centuries. (The Wikipedia page on Londinium is fascinating!)
However, there were a few elements that I found a bit lacking. The first is that I felt this story was narrow in scope. It literally does just follow two sisters from their lonely island, back to the mainland, and then their escape to ruins secretly inhabited by women. I kept waiting for a reveal of some sort. But it meanders along to a somewhat understated resolution before fading into a peaceful darkness.
It also bothered me a bit that a lot of otherwise intriguing things were unexplained, like the spiritual aspects of the story. However, this lack of detail could be part of another potential theme, that of faith vs reason, old vs new. Isla’s affinity to pragmatism clashes with Blue’s tether to seeing beyond. Old ways of ruling clash with the desire for more progressive and equal societal structures. And old faiths clash with new ones.
Overall, I enjoyed DARK EARTH, but the somewhat monotonous pacing and understated ending left me a bit underwhelmed. Perhaps there are some themes that just went over my head. Or maybe I prefer more action and pronounced resolutions in the books I read. I still recommend this book. But think it would be a better fit for historical fiction ethusiasts of early Dark Ages England who prefer very character-driven and mostly calm storytelling.
Content warnings: death
Reading format: Kindle e-book