Book Review: Warrior Daughter by Janet Paisley

Inspired by first century AD warrior women, Janet Paisley’s Warrior Daughter is a gripping adventure about one young woman’s struggle to survive in the harsh Celtic wilderness.

2,000 years ago on the Isle of Skye, a warrior is born.

Daughter of an Iron Age warrior queen, Skaaha is wild, headstrong and revered. But she is also a child, and when a chariot race leaves the queen dead and her menacing rival Mara in her place, Skaaha’s charmed life lies in ruins.

Vulnerable, her future imperilled, Skaaha seeks to forge a life beyond the new queen’s reach. But with rumour, fear and danger sweeping the island, she cannot remain unmoved. Broken by brutal misfortune, alone in a world of mistrust, Skaaha must unearth the courage to confront her enemies in defence of her people.

Illuminated by the great Celtic fire festivals, Warrior Daughter is inspired by the historical Scathach, a fierce warrior woman of the first century AD and forerunner to the equally ferocious Boudicca.

I read a lot of historical fiction, but this is the first novel I have read which could be referred to as prehistorical fiction. Set in the first century on what later became the Isle of Skye, Warrior Daughter tells the story of Skaaha as she struggles to forge her own way forward in a wild and often brutal world where enemies are not always easily seen.

I was struck almost immediately by the sheer amount of research the author must have done in crafting this novel. Paisley weaves historical detail into the narrative seamlessly, demonstrating an impressive understanding of a world so far removed from our own, from its druid beliefs to its calendar structured by ancient festivals and the lunar cycle. When combined with her superb, evocative prose, the impact was magical, effortlessly transporting the reader to the middle of the action, from spear fights to the great fires of Beltane. Her success in managing the subject matter so well must not be understated: it is one thing to bring alive documented history, but to bring alive a period and a people which predate recorded history so vividly, is quite frankly magnificent.

The story is structured around the stages of Skaaha’s life, from the death of her mother in childhood through to around the age of eighteen. Although it is a third person narrative, the focus is always on Skaaha, documenting the twists and turns of her life, the challenges and the hardships she faces. Some of the subject matter is agelessly familiar, such as growing up and coming of age, but much of it is not. Living in a matriarchal society of goddesses and warrior queens, Skaaha is revered as the child of Queen Kerrigen and the descendant of the Goddess Danu – an identity which raises her up among her own people but also makes her a target for vengeance, hatred and rivalry. At times the plot is very hard-hitting; a reflection of the times in which it is set, no doubt, but more sensitive readers may wish to exercise caution as graphic violence and sex are frequent features of the novel.

I found Skaaha to be a well-drawn and engaging character who I liked very much; she is a strong female heroine who is bold and brave, but also almost broken by her circumstances and the realisation of her own vulnerability. The story is supported by a fine and colourful cast of characters, from Skaaha’s moon-crazed aunt Jiya, to the wise and otherworldly Ruan, to the thoroughly hateful queen of spite, Mara. To be honest, I struggled to choose a favourite. Nonetheless, I always found myself rooting for Skaaha to find the courage she needs to succeed, to steer her own course and to become who she truly is. Whether she does or not…well, you’ll just have to read the book to find out.

An epic, heart-stopping prehistorical adventure which would work wonderfully as a film. Five stars.