Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 1, 2018

Songwoman (2018), by Ilka Tampke

Songwoman, Ilka Tampke’s second novel, is the sequel to her remarkably successful novel Skin which has had international rights sold in Germany, the Netherlands, Sweden, the US, UK and Vietnam.  A blend of historical fiction and fantasy, Skin was shortlisted for the 2015 Aurealis Award for Best Fantasy Novel, and longlisted for the 2016 Voss.  You can see my review here).

It isn’t necessary, however, to have read the first in the series. Songwoman is an assured novel, again a blend of historical fiction and fantasy, comfortably straddling both the genre and the Literary Fiction shelves.  It is solidly grounded in the mud and dirt and ruthlessness of Albion (i.e. Britain) in 47AD when the Romans were consolidating their rule and stamping out the last vestiges of resistance in Wales.  Tampke’s sources for the historical framework are the Roman historians I read at university: Tacitus and Cassius Deo, and her characters the Welsh war-king Caradog (Caratacus); his sister, the treacherous tribequeen Cartimandua; and the Roman general Scapula were all real-life people.  So is the Emperor Claudius who makes an appearance at the end of the novel.  But Roman Britain was only an afterthought in the coursework for Greek and Roman History, and I don’t remember studying anything about the conquest there.  So the real-life historical events of this novel were new to me, except of course that I knew that #SpoilerAlert the Romans triumphed in the end.

Do young people still learn any British history or has it all been jettisoned?  I loved learning about Roman Britain in both history and Latin classes, and I’ve enjoyed seeing traces of their presence all over Britain.  But what I learned at school was of course all part of the imperial narrative, that is, that Roman imperialism brought peace, stability, and order; improvements in health (water supply) and transport (roads); technological advancement and impressive architecture; plus their number system and the written word.  And of course we then went on to learn uncritically that British imperialism brought analogous benefits to the places they subsequently colonised.  But we didn’t learn anything about what the Romans displaced, and we didn’t learn about the atrocities they committed in victory.

Tampke’s battle for Albion represents the conflict between modernity and tradition.  Southeast Britain has been colonised and its leaders have sworn fealty to Rome.  There is peace and order and the Romans go about doing what they did best, building things.  But Ailia, the flawed heroine of the novel, has a spiritual connection to the land in the way that Indigenous Australians do.  Despite her failure to prevent disaster in Skin, she believes that, as the Kendra* appointed by the Mothers who are the tribal ancestors and the soul of Iron Age Britain, she has a role to play in defeating the invaders and protecting her home and the people in it.  Overcoming doubt and distrust, she makes herself an indispensable adviser to Caradog.  She also becomes pupil to Rhain, Caradog’s Songman, who doesn’t just sing of the past, but also sings the future into being.   Ailia learns his songs using landmarks as memory triggers, which are techniques described in Lynne Kelly’s The Memory Code, which I heard Ilka discuss with Lynne at the Bendigo Writers Festival back in 2015.

I learned Rhain’s poems.  One, then another, then another, in every hour that we rode through mizzling winter rain.  There was no time to stop and re-walk the mountain paths and rivers we were passing in our travels, so I picked up pebbles, feathers, acorns and fallen coins from the roadway whenever we stopped to replenish our water skins, fastened them to the cord that I carried in my pouch, and used their shapes and textures to index my knowledge.  (p.160)

But Ailia’s flaws haunt her.  She is a strong, capable, self-sufficient and independent woman who fights beside her man, but she breaks a vow that she made to Caradog’s wife; she covertly begins teaching a child who like her was born ‘without skin’ i.e without a totem or ancestral connection to land; her flouting of the rules sabotages her own learning; and she is plagued by self-doubt because of that failure at Caer Cad (which is eventually fully explained for those who haven’t read Book #1 but I won’t reveal it here).

Cartimandua, who’s had a bad press at the hands of Tacitus, is a wonderful character.  Complex and dynamic, she is revealed as a supremely confident leader whose pragmatic motivations transcend straightforward betrayal.  Here she is, a tall and awesome figure in a red robe, meeting Caradog when he comes undetected through Scapula’s territory to ask for more men for his cause:

‘My brother!’ My dog!’ Her voice boomed like a lowing heifer.  ‘You brew trouble like an ale-smith! And you have the hide of a bullock walking into my township—how do you know there are not five legionaries waiting beyond the door?  I could fulfil Scapula’s dearest wish with just one word to a rider…’

Caradog rose, smiling.  ‘But then you would be denied the pleasure of watching what trouble I am yet to cause.’

She roared with laughter and they embraced warmly as kin.

‘Brother,’ she repeated more softly, clasping his shoulders as she looked in his face.  ‘Last time I saw you, you had barely a sprout on your chest, yet now you are sought by the Emperor himself.  And as handsome as a cockerel!’ She laughed again, then her eyes fell to me.  ‘And who is this? Wait—do not tell!’ she said, clapping her palms.  ‘I have heard of this trinket from the few remaining journeymen bold enough to attend me—this is she who is Mother-chosen, Albion’s last Kendra!’

‘Last?’ I questioned, although we had not yet greeted.  I suspected she would forgive my directness.

She frowned through her smile.  ‘Do you believe that Claudius will permit any such idol to stand once he has laid claim to this sile?’ She cocked her head when I did not answer.  ‘If you do you are a fool.  The wheel has turned, Kendra, as surely as spring follows winter.’ (p.164)

The novel ripples with the ancient beliefs of an ancient era in collision with a modernising force of great power.  The Catuvellaunians sacrifice to the Mothers, including a rather grisly human sacrifice, and they believe in augury and visions and totems.  Some, like the little girl Malacca, are ostracised as outsiders to the tribe, and as Ailia discerns for herself, warfare becomes an end in itself. And the descriptions of the Welsh mountains are beautiful, but the stink of first century life is vivid too.

It’s an absorbing story with twists and turns and moral dilemmas to untangle.  Ailia, still only a young woman, is on a journey of self-discovery and must regain her confidence in herself and also deftly manage the distrust of those within her tribe who are not even sure of her status and role.  She’ll be back in Book #3, with, I predict, Malacca by her side…

*The website SheKnows tells me that Kendra is an Anglo-Saxon name meaning prophetess but the definitions at the Urban Dictionary also seem rather apt!

Author: Ilka Tampke
Title: Songwoman
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2018
ISBN: 9781925603637
Review copy courtesy of Text Publishing

Available from Fishpond: Songwoman


  1. Historical fiction/fantasy AND Lit.Fic., that’s a difficult combo to imagine. I struggle with plain old C of E in C19th lit. Can’t imagine enjoying made up C1st religion.


    • Well, I wasn’t too sure I’d like it either. But I was wrong, I did like it.
      And BTW the insertion of Lynne Kelly’s theory of memory is a masterstroke.


  2. The time frame is definitely of interest – I’m ashamed to admit that I know nothing about this period in the history of Wales. We were never taught it in school; never got even a mention when we did Roman history (though that was ver skimpy anyway). But the fantasy aspect is a bit of a turn off.. and that cover image is awful.. I’d have to read this wrapped in brown paper.


    • “I’d have to read this wrapped in brown paper”
      That gives me an idea for a grass roots feminist campaign against dopey sexist covers like this. If we all read these books wrapped in brown paper with a sticker attached that said “It’s not porn, it’s a sexist cover designed by #InsertName” it would upset the publicists no end, and eventually they would get the idea!


      • Love the idea. I would suggest doing something similar for those awful covers featuring men with six pack abdomens. But then never in a million years would I read one of those anyway


        • No, nor would I. And to be truthful, one look at this cover would have been enough to send me running, if I hadn’t already read this author before. Which would have been a pity.
          But the maxim ‘you can’t judge a book by its cover’ mostly isn’t true any more. There is a kind of book cover code that signals what kind of book it is to the market.

          Liked by 1 person

  3. […] Songwoman by Ilka Tampke, see my review This gripping novel follows one woman’s quest to defend her culture in Iron-Age Wales during the […]


  4. […] Songwoman, by Ilka Tampke […]


  5. […] Novel, and longlisted for the 2016 Voss.  Songwoman deserves similar acclaim: it is, as I said in my review, likewise solidly grounded in the mud and dirt and ruthlessness of Albion (i.e. Britain) in 47AD […]


  6. […] Novel, and longlisted for the 2016 Voss.  Songwoman deserves similar acclaim: it is, as I said in my review, likewise solidly grounded in the mud and dirt and ruthlessness of Albion (i.e. Britain) in 47AD […]


  7. […] Ilka Tampke, Songwoman: novel, 2019 MUBA winner, Lisa’s review […]


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