The book cover for Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott

STAR RATING:  4.5 stars
PAGE LENGTH: 336 pages
WHAT SERIES? This is a standalone.
CW: Blood, violence
IF YOU LIKED THIS, TRY: Sistersong by Lucy Holland

Thank you to Netgalley and Random House Publishing Group for providing an ARC of this novel in exchange for an honest review.


In Dark Ages Britain, 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 north bank of the Thames. The native Britons and the new migrants from the East who scratch out a living in small wooden camps in its hinterland fear that the crumbling stone ruins are haunted by vengeful spirits.

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. The local warlord, Osric, has put the Great Smith under close guard and ruled that he make his magnificent swords only for him so that he can use them to build alliances and extend his kingdom.

For years, the sisters have been running wild, Blue communing with animals and plants and Isla secretly learning her father’s trade, which is forbidden to women. But when their father suddenly dies, they find themselves facing enslavement by Osric and his cruel, power-hungry son Vort. Their only option is to escape to the Ghost City, where they discover an underworld of rebel women living secretly amid the ruins. As Blue and Isla settle into their new life, they find both refuge and community with the women around them. But it is all too fragile. With the ruins collapsing all around them, Blue and Isla realize they can’t elude the men who hunt them forever. If they are to survive, they will need to use all their skill and ingenuity—as well as the magic of their foremothers—to fight back.

Did you know that after the Romans left Britain in 420, Londinium was left abandoned for over 400 years? And did you know that most of the people living in the area around the ruined city, thought it to be haunted, or bad luck, and therefore avoided the ruins? I had no idea. Rebecca Stott got the idea for Dark Earth after hearing about an archeologist who found a Saxon brooch buried deep within the Roman ruins. This outlier of history made Stott question who the woman was that dropped her brooch. What was she doing in the ruins? Why did she enter when so many did not?

It’s those, and many more questions besides, that Stott plays with in Dark Earth. Speaking of — the name of the novel comes from the stripe of dark earth that sits above all Roman ruins in London. This dirt comes from the 400 years that Londinium was unoccupied, where nature was doing her best to retake the land.

I wasn’t sure what to make of Dark Earth at first. Is it a fantasy novel? A retelling of history? A simple story, set on the backdrop of actual lore? I would say it’s all of these combined. There are definite elements of fantasy woven through this story, the biggest one being that one of the sisters, Blue, has the ability to see the future in her dreams. The retelling of history is a little murkier — it’s unclear when you read the book if some of these people actually existed or not. However, the story itself certainly seems plausible.

The two sisters are the daughters of a great smith, known for making fire-tongued swords. (I assumed this meant damascus steel, but I’m not sure if this is actually the case.) After a raid on their settlement leaves them without a mother, the sisters and their father are banished to an island in the Thames. There, their father is made to make more fire-tongued swords for the local chief/leader/king/person. All is well-enough, until their father dies. Then, everything goes wrong.

As for the characters, Blue is a dreamy sort of character, head in the clouds, sometimes not all the way there. She is the younger of the two sisters. Isla is the older of the two, and she’s much more serious. I frequently found Blue to be irritating, but I loved Isla. Honestly, most of the characters are not fleshed out. They are pretty bare bones, but it works in the story. I loved the backdrop of this novel, of learning how people must have lived during this time of history. It certainly seems like a bleak sort of life, one that I am glad I do not have to live. If you enjoy reading about history at all, you will enjoy Dark Earth by Rebecca Stott!


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