Author: Keren Gilfoyle
Publisher: Headline Book Publishing, 1993
Okay, the incest serves mainly to paint out the decadence of the Desaighnes Family. They claim to not be human, thanks to their magical Inheritance, but I suspect that’s just generations of them giving themselves airs and graces talking. The Desaighnes hold a large territory known only as the Dominion, complete with slaves, but as one can imagine, the rot has long set in, and the mafia-like Family is fading.
Generations of inbreeding, in an attempt to preserve racial purity – and magical powers – has instead resulted in a few stunted individuals unable to live up to the standards of the last-remaining Great One, Halenne.
Up until recently, the Desaighnes had a policy of not allowing any of their halfblood offspring to live, but for a twist of fate, Tobias and his siblings, Nikleis and Bekhet, have been allowed to grow into adulthood.
Nikleis and Bekhet have been raised as Family, among the Desaighnes, while Tobias has been raised by his mother, a hostage princess. Consequently, he has rejected the Desaighnes ways and hankers after a homeland he has never seen.
Despite his mother being held a virtual prisoner, Tobias has been running wild, and has an entire life – and young family – in the forbidding fenlands near the Desaighnes residence, among the heron tribe.
Little does he know that the Old Woman of the heron tribe is tolerating his presence for more sinister purposes – for the magic flowing through his veins. To her he is little more than a convenient stud, to breed gifted offspring to eventually raise the fen-folk’s stature. The Old Woman wishes for girls to continue and strengthen her legacy.
Added to the mix are the sinister and mysterious fetch lights and the larger litch fires – beings of magical energy – that also tie in with their magic. I get the idea that Keren Gilfoyle would have developed this further had she continued with the series, but it was a lovely exploration.
The basic premise of this novel is an attempted political takeover by the Family once they realise they need to unblock their halfblood scions’ Inheritance. As in the nature of any young predators, there is competition between the three as they jostle for supremacy (granted, not so much from Tobias, whose main aim is escape, pure and simple).
Tobias wants only to free his mother and return her to her home. Their love for each other borders almost on the obsessive, but given the circumstances, this is easy to understand. Tobias’s mother clings to her youngest, especially after suffering years of abuse from her now mercifully deceased husband.
Nikleis hates Tobias with an unrelenting passion, and sees his youngest sibling as an obstacle in his path keeping him from his mother’s affections. He has a massive inferiority complex thanks to his complicated upbringing among the Desaighnes – and up until now feels that he has not been allowed the opportunity to prove himself.
Bekhet’s love for Tobias is more than sisterly, and the more Tobias spurns her dubious affections, the more she throws herself at him. She has suffered a lot of abuse from the Desaighnes, which has left her emotionally stunted. That’s not to say that she’s stupid – far from it; of all the children, Bekhet is perhaps the most cunning, which makes her all the more dangerous when underestimated.
Tobias must struggle to free his mother and sister from the scheming Desaighnes, whose corruption taints everything it touches. And his journey becomes all the more fraught, as not only must he come to terms with his own burgeoning powers, but he must learn to accept himself for who and what he is in order to stop his power-hungry relatives.
Gilfoyle’s world-building, although dizzying at times with the quantity and variety of names and places, made this novel for me, from the vivid descriptions of clothing and architecture, down to the untamed fens. The setting is almost tangible, and I forgot I was even holding a book. Another thing that is clear is the author’s great love and understanding of horses. They aren’t just commodities, as in so many other fantasy sagas.
The only serious criticism I can level against A Shadow on the Skin is that there are a number of new characters introduced near the end who were clearly intended to take on more prominent roles later. Likewise, there are story arcs begging for closure, or further development, even though Gilfoyle does conclude the more important ones so that this novel can stand on its own.
A Shadow on the Skin is filled with drama, magic and intrigue, in a well-realised setting that begs for further exploration.
Keren, if you ever read this review, please consider returning to your world and your craft, and continue telling this story. It is magnificent, and now that I’ve had a taste of your magic, I need more.