Surprise , surprise! This week I’m bringing you yet another historical fiction review. Most of you will surely know by now how much I love this genre of fiction and I’ve been reading a lot of great books surrounding it lately! Most recently we have the likes of The Mermaid and Mrs Hancock and Jane Seymour: The Haunted Queen, both of which I would definitely recommend.
When I was very kindly sent The King’s Witch by the lovely team at Hodder I was thrilled. Firstly, it’s historical fiction. Secondly, the title suggested something superstitious and surrounding the persecution of women. Thirdly, it’s set in the reign of King James I, a period I’ve read relatively little about. Of course, I also can’t forget to mention the stunning cover design, which is both regal and beautiful in its rich colours of deep red and gold.
The King’s Witch is set directly in the time period after the death of Queen Elizabeth I, as the newly appointed Scottish King James I becomes monarch. It’s a turbulent time, the court under a new rule and society unsure of the religious and political attitudes the King is likely to take. The story follows Frances Georges, daughter of eminent courtiers who has a talent for healing through the powers of herbs and flowers. Frances has always been praised for her talents, but the under the new King’s reign it is quickly evident that such skills are seen as the devils work. Trapped in a royal court where fear and suspicion are at every corner, the King becomes fixated with his puritanical views and his hatreds of witchcraft. The only solace Frances can find is in the young Princess Elizabeth and Tom Wintour, an intelligent courtier she hopes she can trust.
One of the things I enjoyed most about this book was the way it was able to build in both plot and anticipation. The book is a tad slow to start, with a somewhat gentle introduction to the historical contexts. As soon as Frances gets to court however, the intrigues of this life begin to take over and we become more and more transfixed on what is about to play out. Admittedly at the begining of the book I was interested but somewhat unsure, but by the novels conclusion I was completely hooked by every single aspect of this wonderful book. The structure of the book itself very much mirrors this growing interest. At the start of the novel Frances herself is quite innocent and perhaps somewhat unsure of herself, but by the end we have the complete contrast of a wise woman who has learned through hard ways the true horrors of court life and what lies behind the seemingly regal opulence.
I don’t think that Tracy Borman is the most literary of fictional writers, but that’s really not what is needed to make this novel work. What she is able to do with her words is make this piece of history come to life before our very eyes, creating a superb blend of fiction and reality. Her writing is accessible, further increasing the chances of allowing such a momentous time in history to be remembered by all kinds of readers. She has taken a very important time in history and very crucial historical facts and has embellished them perfectly to work to her own ends. The entire plot is just very well thought out and you can certainly tell that she is herself a skilled historian.
One of my favourite aspects of this novel and something which I think will interest many people is the strong look at the idea of witches and witchcraft. What we are shown is a society in which women can be persecuted for a vast number of things which men did not like or could use women as scapegoats for. If a man could not get his wife pregnant, blame a woman for having cursed him. If a man cheated, blame a woman for having put him under a spell. The lists were endless, and the women who did excel in their skill, or the women who did want to further themselves, were all prime candidates for having made a deal with the devil. The author shows perfectly how societies attitudes were towards woman in general, as well as the very strong religious beliefs which allowed for such things as witches and devils to remain at the forefront of their King’s mind.
Likewise, the broader historical contexts and the socio-political climate are woven expertly throughout this narrative. I especially enjoyed the harsh reminders that this was indeed a time where religion was still one of the most influential deciding factors in society. Just as it could justify and allow for the existence of witches, it also shows how determined so many people were in their faith. King James I inherited a very unstable country in which religion had been swaying back and forth like a pendulum since Henry VIII decided to break from Rome and create the Church of England. Although Elizabeth I did not wish to make ‘windows into men’s souls’, King James was determined to rid his kingdom of anyone who worshiped the Catholic faith. The book explores the problems and insecurities this incited in a very believable and understanding way. Indeed, the entire book never felt overly suffused with facts and figured, with the reader being able to gather historical knowledge naturally as the plot progresses chronologically forwards.
It was also just incredibly refreshing to see a book deal with a period of history which I don’t see fictionalised or even explored that often. Admittedly there are a lot of books which deal with the Tudor period, but I don’t see anywhere near as many which deal with the aftermath of this and the succession of King James I to the throne. Additionally, for those of you who know your names in history, you may have noticed the mention of a Thomas Wintour in my opening summary or on the blurb of the book itself. Thomas Wintour was one of the men involved in the gunpowder plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament and kill the King. Growing up in Britain we all celebrate Bonfire Night on November 5th and we all know the name of Guy Fawkes. Having said that, how many of us really understand why we mark this event and what Fawkes was actually trying to fight for? I think its pretty shocking how little my generation knows about their own history, and to see this brought so vividly and thrillingly to life was an experience beyond belief.
Historical context is all well and good, but this book would have been nothing without the characterisation which we see develop throughout. Not only Frances, but the likes of Thomas and the King and indeed even the people in the street, are gifted personalities which add such vibrancy to the novel. It’s because of the work which has been put into this that the novels climax is so very thrilling and unsettling to encounter. Even though I knew how this event in history played out and I knew what was going to happen, I still felt completely bereft when certain things took place. I felt such heartbreak because of this attachment which the author builds up, and even though it might not be the happiest of endings, the tone and style were done perfectly.
I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I’m so thankful that I got to read such a brilliant work of historical fiction. Not only was it a delight to learn more about this period of time, it was also a pleasure to follows the plot to its conclusion. It’s a testament to the author that even days after finishing this novel I am still replaying the events over in my head! From superstitious monarchs to grisly tortures and the cruelest of love stories; this book was an unexpected whirlwind which brought this period of history so vibrantly to life!
Disclaimer – I was very kindly sent this book in exchange for an honest review. I will only ever post my own honest opinions and will NOT write a favourable review in exchange for a complimentary book.