Monday, June 27, 2016

Book review: Daughter of Albion, by Ilka Tampke

North American cover
(Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's)

Australian writer Ilka Tampke’s magical debut, Daughter of Albion, has classic genre elements in its blood. It offers the Celtic-tinged feminism of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s The Mists of Avalon, a dark, earthy style reminiscent of Morgan Llywelyn’s The Horse Goddess, and themes of heroic fantasy transposed into a gritty Iron Age England. While some aspects were familiar to me, particularly the growth of its young heroine into a potential leader of her people, its uniqueness lies in the kinship and belief system used by the author and how these diverse parts form into a coherent whole.

Ailia is a young woman without “skin,” or totem. Her family is unknown; she was discovered as a swaddled newborn on the doorstep of her Tribequeen’s kitchen in the year 28 AD, and raised by a servant called Cookmother. By the time she’s fourteen, Ailia has grown to recognize the disadvantages of her skinlessness, for skin is the very fabric of one’s social existence.
Australian cover
(Text Publishing)

Although Ailia may lie with a young man at the Beltane fires (and does), she’s unlikely to marry. Others in her matriarchal tribe aren’t allowed to educate her, either, although she picks up cooking and healing techniques by watching others. Naturally, one of her primary goals is discovering her identity, especially when it becomes clear, by means of a supernatural visitation, that she was chosen for a greater destiny by the Mothers, the ancestral guardians of the Celtic lands. And if ever the people of the Durotriga need a strong leader, it’s now. The Romans are primed to invade, and other tribal kings and queens of Albion are divided on their approach to the would-be conquerors.

UK cover
(Hodder Paperbacks)

The geographic setting is deftly realized; Ailia’s homeland of Caer Cad is a hilltown in what’s now known as Somerset, and the great Glastonbury Tor makes several appearances. Ailia has a choice of romantic partners, and each reflects a different direction for her future. (In this regard, there is one unusual and not very appealing sex scene.) Her journey is also a tale of power, revenge, and community.

Fans of traditional historical fiction should be aware that the novel spends much time within the spiritual realms. As a longtime fantasy reader, though, I found it fascinating to see how goings-on in the Mothers’ world influenced events in the “hardworld,” that is, on earth. The dramatic ending, while in tune with history, unfolds swiftly, and, in my view, with an insufficient level of intensity. I also had a sense early on, as is common with fantasy fiction, that this novel was only the beginning of Ailia’s story, and this guess turned out to be right. According to the author’s bio, a sequel is in the works.

Daughter of Albion was published in the US and Canada by Thomas Dunne, an imprint of St. Martin's, in April in hardcover ($25.99/C$36.99).  I've also included the covers for the British and original Australian editions, for which the title is different.  This is my first 2016 entry for the Australian Women Writers Challenge; I'm way behind but catching up!


  1. I heard the author speak at the Melbourne Writers Festival last year, on a panel with another author who had written a hurt/comfort/slash novel but neither of them spoke much about their books, only about themselves and why they write, so I didn't buy the books. And the unpleasant sex scene you mention was mentioned briefly, but not in detail, by the moderator and also put me off. Glad to hear it's enjoyable. Perhaps my library has a copy.

    1. Interesting - I'm not surprised someone else mentioned the sex scene. When you write something like that, it's a given people will be talking about it! But I enjoyed the novel overall, the world-building in particular. Mainly I wish it had felt more complete in one volume, even though it was a continuing story.

  2. Sounds fantastic - your second sentence had me signing on the dotted line - thanks for the great review!

    1. Thanks, glad you liked the review! I admired how the novel used traditional genre elements and yet came up with something new.