Skin - Ilka Tampke

It sounds like the plot of just about any youth fantasy novel, but there is more to Skin than meets the eye. Ailia, a foundling half-born, her parentage unknown, lacks the one thing that is important to everyone in the land she lives in - a totem animal, a 'skin'. You skin - whether its that of dog, salmon or deer - not only defines who you are in this society, but who you can be. Without a skin, 14 year-old Ailia is lucky even to be working as a servant for her Tribequeen, Fraid of Northern Duntriga, but she has an unknown destiny ahead of her that will be important to her tribe. Wandering near the forbidden Oldforest one day, Ailia meets an injured young man called Taliesin, and from that moment on, her life starts to move in a new and unexpected direction.

The location mentioned there might provide a bit of a clue that Skin is not set in some fantasy world, but in the real world, in England in fact, or Albion as it would have been known in the first century AD. Although the plot sounds like a familiar coming of age adventure, this real-world historical setting gives it a little more of an edge, as well as something of a challenge for Australian author Ilka Tampke to overcome in her debut novel. The British tribes are about to face the might of Rome and are concerned about their weakness following the death of the tribal chieftain Cunobelinus. Should they submit to the authority and laws of Rome peacefully, or should they fight? Only the Kendra can guide them to make the right decision.

For the reader, a fortune teller is not needed; a history book will do pretty much the same thing. That's only part of the challenge Ilka Tampke faces here, making the book interesting to the reader who may/should already have some idea of what the outcome is going to be. As the fantasy angle in the plot description indicates, Tampke approaches the work from more than a basic historical fiction, and indeed rather successfully blends the two genres well. And for all intents and purposes, the traditions, rituals and beliefs of people in Britain in AD 28 might as well be that of another world. This is the time of the druids (or journeymen), so even magic can fit into the whole fabric of the period well.

It's the latter that proves to be the most significant element of the book and the direction it takes as events unfold in Skin, but the way it is employed and the purpose it is put to is what really makes the work adventurous, distinctive and meaningful. It doesn't fall back on historical reenactment of known events. The period and the events that occur are important of course as background and to a large extent towards the important question of identity that evidently is what Skin is all about. For Ailia however, that's more of an inner journey as the novel takes on more of a mystical quality in its second half.

Skin is about identity, roots, tradition and respect for the ways and laws of the land. It's not so much about questions of 'purity' however, however much the historical events might indicate, the Roman invasion and bringing of 'civilisation' inevitably corrupting the old ways. Skin however manages to transcend both the historical and the fantasy, beyond the 'hardworld' and beyond 'skin', to find a greater truth. What Tampke manages to do is also to transcend genre and reach an almost mythological level in Ailia's journey, a journey where "Everything changes. Yet nothing is lost".

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