This is a beautifully written novel that is both historical and fantastical. For me, this is both its strength and in some regards, its weakness. When I first started reading it, I thought it was an historical novel, so accurate were the details and the rendering of setting (1600s) which meant your senses were both fired and tuned to the past, and the characters inhabiting it came alive. When the fantastical elements came to the fore, I found myself, at first, confused and unsettled. They didn’t ring true, so perfect had the other “real” parts seemed. It wasn’t until I understood the novel is really historical fantasy, that segues into the present (and keeps the magic happening), as well as taking the reader back to different historical periods, that I lost myself in a marvellous tale of female power and subordination, as well corruption and male control.
The book opens during the reign of King Charles of England in 1628, during the witch craze. After terrible trials and tragedy befall her family, young Bess Hawksmith has yet to endure worse – seeing her mother accused of witchcraft and having dire judgement cast upon her. As the village in which Bess grew up, and where her mother held such an esteemed position, turns against them, Bess is forced to seek the protection of Gideon Masters, an unpleasant man whom Bess cannot trust.
Yet, it’s Gideon who teaches Bess the skills to survive and in doing so, saves her life. He inducts her into the Craft, introducing her to powers she barely knew she possessed. Fleeing Gideon and the control he tries to exert over her one night, Bess tries to make a new life for herself. What she doesn’t expect is that Gideon will hunt her down – not merely through one lifetime, but through the many her powers have granted her. That is, until he can exact the price he demands for saving her.
Moving from the 1600s to the present, the reader is slowly given insight into the different lives and times of Bess/Elizabeth and the other variations on her name she takes. From a nurse during the Great War, to a surgeon in an early hospital and others, Bess tries to find occupations where she can put the skills she has and use her formidable powers for good. Trying to avoid Gideon, she barely manages to stay one step ahead, but it’s not until the present day when she finds solace in a small cottage and the friendship of a young girl whom she begins to train in the craft, that she faces her greatest challenge.
This was an unusual book and though I thoroughly enjoyed it, I particularly liked the parts that took the reader back in time. Brackston has a knack for recreating an historical moment and place – through small details, a twist of prose, a deliciously rendered character, and gorgeous descriptions that place you in the there and now of the period. While some of the magic and fantasy didn’t seem to weave as well into the tale as others parts, and the climax was, at times, disjointed, it was still a compelling read that revealed a great deal about women’s place in society – then and today.
I look forward to reading the other books in the series.