Daughters of the Witching Hill by Mary Sharatt
This book is written with such lovely empathy that it radiates. Based on the details of the 1612 Pendle (England) witches trial, this novel follows Bess Southerns and her family as they scratch a living out of the hard soil. One source of income is doing “cunning” work: healing and magic. Which of course leads to trouble… imprisonment and the threat of execution.
I so sincerely don’t believe in witchcraft, and am so enraged at how even today (read my archives) people are still being tortured and killed for the accusation of witchcraft, that it’s a tough sell for me to accept a novel in which someone really does have powers. But Sharatt’s light touch allowed me to immerse myself in this world.
An interview with Katherine Howe, another witchcraft author, reveals a key point for me. Sharatt says of one of her real-life characters:
Her last recorded words before she was hanged were a passionate vindication of her grandmother's legacy as a healer.
Clearly, these women did believe in their cunning powers, whether or not they truly existed. Sharatt’s earnest and compassionate telling of their lives won over this initially hesitant reader, and I highly recommend this beautifully-told book.
The Children of Witches, by Sherri Smith.
Published in England and available here in the U.S. as a Kindle edition, this novel looks at the world of witchcraft in a medieval German town. Smith asked me for a blurb for her beautiful novel, and I gladly gave one.
The innkeeper’s son Manfred is somehow “not quite right” but has a lovely singing voice and gathers attention and fame for it. Unfortunately, once the spotlight shines on him, it displays other things, and suddenly a village is turned upside down. The priest gathers children to him and they begin pointing fingers. Soon, they run the village and even their own parents are afraid of them. No one will enter the marketplace during the hours that the children are freely roaming and looking for people to enact their spite upon.
It’s a terrifying look at what happens when the most power is handed to the people least able to wield it. With poetic language, this novel is quiet and haunting.
The Dark Lantern, by Gerri Brightwell
Set in Victorian London, one of my favorite historical fiction armchair destinations, this novel tells the tale of Jane, a maid who does that wonderfully appropriate thing of spying on her employers. We quickly learn all kinds of disquieting things about possible fraudulent heiresses, intruders impersonating the man of the house, and even the fact that our maid hides secrets herself.
I’ve never read such a realistic (and harrowing) description of housework of the era. The cinders from the fireplace, which embed themselves in the rug and endlessly need to be cleaned, became nearly a character themselves.
The lantern of the title has a sliding screen that can hide or reveal the candle inside, which provides a beautiful metaphor for the way the author gives brief, half-seen glimpses of truths before leaving us in the dark again. A compelling read very akin to Sarah Waters’ work.