I received this book for free from the Publisher in exchange for an honest review. This does not affect my opinion of the book or the content of my review.A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan
Published by Redhook on September 5 2017
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The nitty-gritty: A multi-generational saga of a family of witches, with plenty of drama, familiars, and just a touch of magic.
I’ve always loved multi-generational stories, although I usually associate them with historical and literary fiction, not fantasy. But Louisa Morgan has combined all three genres into a fascinating and far-reaching tale of a family of witches, a line that has been handed down through the generations from mother to daughter. Morgan’s tale begins in 1821 with a powerful witch named Ursule, whose second sight leads the rest of her clan to a place of safety called Orchard Farm in Cornwall. The book is divided into five sections, and each one is the contained story of a girl from the Orchiére family who exhibits powers in one way or another. This is not a fast-paced story, but rather a reflection on the powerful bond between mothers and daughters (and grandmothers), bonds that are filled with not only love but resentment, rebellion and even heartache. It was a nice change of pace from the action-packed books that I’ve been reading lately, and I loved the fact that the magical elements are not the focus of the story.
The entire book spans the years from 1821 through the end of World War II and moves from Wales to Cornwall to London. Nanette is only a toddler when her grandmother Ursule dies, but little does she know that Ursule’s powers are simply lying in wait until Nanette reaches a certain age. Nanette lives with her aunts and uncles on the secluded Orchard Farm, where they keep their powers hidden from those who would prosecute and burn them for the crime of witchcraft. One day the aunts take Nanette to their hidden temple, where they reveal an old crystal to Nanette, hoping the crystal will respond to her and prove that she is the one to carry on the magic of the Orchiére line. When Nanette realizes that she does indeed have powers, the aunts rejoice that the line has not been broken. But hard times lie ahead for the family. An evil priest has targeted them and will stop at nothing to see them destroyed. And when Nanette becomes pregnant after a night of passion with a handsome stranger, the priest is more determined than ever to ruin them.
And so it continues through the years. Nanette gives birth to a baby girl and names her Ursule after her grandmother. Each Orchiére daughter that comes after–Ursule, Irène, Morwen and Veronica–grows up in a different time with different challenges, and yet each also faces similar problems. The threat of being discovered is never far from their minds, and even as society becomes more progressive, the family continues their ceremonies in secret.
Although each girl’s situation is similar in many ways–they reach puberty and discover they are witches, grow up and meet a stranger or some man who is off-limits, have a night of passion, and end up pregnant–the girls themselves are vastly different. There is Ursule, who loves working on the farm, riding the ponies, and most of all, milking her beloved goats; Irène, who resents her low status and wants nothing more than to become a Lady; Morwen, who discovers that her grandmother Ursule is still alive and comes to appreciate her history; and finally Veronica, whose life is changed by the war. Out of all five stories, I have to say my favorite was Veronica’s. Not only did I love the World War II backdrop–complete with the horrors of Hitler’s monstrous actions–but I found Veronica to be the most sympathetic of the bunch. Of all the women, she puts her powers to good use, joining forces with a group of women who are determined to change the tide of war.
Irène was my least favorite, a conniving woman who hates that her mother is laborer, and when she finally finds out that she is a witch, she uses that power to procure a Lord as a husband, and completely turns her life around. You can’t really fault her for wanting to do that, but she treated her mother, Ursule, so poorly that I couldn’t wait to move on to the next section.
One of my favorite aspects of the story was the author’s use of the witch’s familiar. Animals play a huge role in this book, and being a big animal lover, I enjoyed the relationships between girl and familiar immensely. Nanette acquires a cat, who lives for decades. Morwen’s familiar is a Shire horse named Ynyr, the offspring of Nanette’s lover’s horse (who also lives to a great age!) Even Irène, the master manipulator of this story, has a familiar!
Part of the fun of this story was watching the way the women manipulated the men in their lives. Normally I wouldn’t condone manipulation, but I had great respect for a group of women who were more or less persecuted for their beliefs, but are able to improve their situations with magic. Take Ursule, for example. She is married to a man who has no interest in her at all, and when she becomes pregnant with another man’s baby, she and her mother Nanette do everything they can to cover up the pregnancy by trying to get Ursule’s husband Morcum to have sex with her soon after. Unfortunately, this scheme goes horribly wrong, proving that there is indeed a price to pay for using magic.
As for the magical parts of the story, the Orchiére magic revolves around an old crystal that glows brightly from within whenever a witch of great power is nearby. Each of the five women in the story are able to use the crystal’s magic at one time or another, and the crystal itself is carefully protected and passed down from mother to daughter. Some of the women are able to use the crystal as a scrying apparatus and actually see events in other places happening, or foretell the future.
The only drawback for me was the repetitiveness of the sections. After two or three stories, I began to expect a pattern, and for the most part I wasn’t disappointed. The pacing is mostly slow, and although that may be a drawback for some readers, I actually enjoyed all the small details that make up the life of each of the characters. This is one of those books where the reward comes after you’ve finished reading it, and you can see the entire scope of the family saga.
A Secret History of Witches will probably appeal mostly to those who enjoy historical family dramas with a touch of magic, and animal lovers will adore reading about the witches’ familiars.
Big thanks to the publisher for supplying a review copy.