WARRIOR DAUGHTER Janet Paisley Penguin, £7.99 Review: Chitra Ramaswamy
SKAAHA, the fierce proto-feminist heroine of Janet Paisley's second novel, lived on an island off the west coast of Scotland, then Alba, 2000 years ago. The island in question, now known as Skye, is said to be named after her. As an inspiring warrior queen, Scotland's Boudicca, whose fort Doonskaa (Dunscaith) still stands as a ruin on an offshore rock, it's a travesty that most of us have probably never heard of her.
With her sister Eefay, Skaaha ran a martial arts school during the Iron Age, teaching men and women warrior skills as well as, it's worth adding, skills more useful between the sheets. Warrior Daughter, with its lochs and brochs and barely clothed lusty warriors turning cartwheels at dawn, would make a fantastic film. If Keira Knightley was too busy or couldn't pull off the Hebridean accent, Kelly Macdonald would be perfect in the title role.
Paisley's novel aims to rewrite these neglected women back into the books, though Warrior Daughter wears its didacticism lightly and is no dense historical chin-stroker. You might think of it as more of a thigh stroker, in fact. Like her last novel, White Rose Rebel, this is an unashamedly commercial book, by which I mean there is lashings and lashings of sex. From the naked druid "deftly tying the sling to his thigh, the ends of thong slapping", to the lotions and potions constantly rubbed into nether regions, to the wild copulating in Celtic rings of fire, it's a wonder this bawdy bunch ever had the time – or strength – to take up their spears.
The sex may be overblown but it does reveal the balance of power in the Scotland of the first century AD. Women are the leaders. They fight, take more than one husband, are revered in pregnancy and their daughters are prized over their sons. When they greet the men who defer to them, they raise their skirts in acknowledgment of their feminine power. The skirts, by the way, are the female ancestors of the kilt, as in nothing is worn beneath them. Men, by contrast, serve the mead and shouldn't speak unless spoken to. It's a rather satisfying matriarchal history, in fact, for the female readership to whom Warrior Daughter will appeal. There is no relegating women to the role of simpering love interest in this tale, which is a great relief and makes you realise how few stories like this get dug up.
When Skaaha's mother, Kerrigen, dies in a chariot race, her crown is taken by the malevolent rival queen Mara and the eight-year-old daughter leaves to train as a smith, rejecting her warrior ancestry. But she won't be scouring bogs for pieces of ore for long. A daughter of Kerrigen, as the conventions of such epics go, cannot deny the blood in her veins. Learning to fight under the druid Ruan (he being the one with the thong slapping his thigh), she comes of age at Beltane, has some horrific life-threatening experiences, a lot of mind-blowing sex with men and women, and eventually rises up to reclaim her land.
Paisley, an award-winning writer and poet, tells Skaaha's story in appropriately epic and portentous language and it's a rip-roaring yarn, even if it's obvious how it will turn out. Her poetic voice shines through in the spare lyricism of the prose. Solar feasts such as Beltane are viscerally evoked and the spiritual beliefs and myths well told.
Yet the spear-and-sex genre of mythic historical romance has some slushy, sentimental associations and Paisley doesn't always transcend them. When she does, it's with language, in the verdant descriptions of the landscape or with the Scots words that pepper her prose, though she could have been more liberal here without alienating a mainstream readership.
Some of the characters, such as Mara, remain frustratingly oblique, and now and then it edges into parody and the ghost of Xena: Warrior Princess threatens to slash her way in to the picture. But it's the constant coupling that eventually becomes a case of too much of a good thing. When Skaaha, preparing for the biggest battle of her life, takes three days out to bed Fion, a moustached warrior "dissolving into orgasmic purity inside her" – yes, for three whole days – I was the one who felt spent.