Review: A Secret History of Witches
The book begins in 1821, when a small group of Romani (gypsies) are escaping immanent death by leaving France for England. And the only reason they escape is through the efforts of the group’s matriarch and the magic she’s inherited from her witch ancestresses. The Orchiére women have used their magic for hundreds of years, the magic following their daughters from generation to generation. A SECRET HISTORY OF WITCHES follows their genealogy from 1821 to World War II, showcasing a line of vibrant women connected tightly to their family’s past and future.
A SECRET HISTORY OF WITCHES is the kind of book you bring to your ladies’ book club. There isn’t much offensive to it. Even with the Catholic witch hunters who try to expose the Orchiéres for what they are, Christians are only lightly touched on. There’s sex, but brief scenes that don’t go into much detail. There isn’t really any swearing or gruesome violence, even though a few people experience unpleasant endings. And from what reviews I’ve read, it doesn’t go into enough depth about wicca/paganism to bother most Christian readers; but may disappoint some wiccan/pagan practitioners for lack of detail. It tries very hard to appeal to a large audience.
And mostly it succeeds. The novel is told in a straightforward and uncomplicated fashion, moving from woman to woman (from 1821, 1834, 1847, 1886, 1910, 1937), focusing on the experiences and character of the individual women as they come into their power and eventually carry on the Orchiére line. Each woman is different than the last, the mother-daughter dynamic often coming into play and affecting the lives of those who come after. The story pulled me in quickly as a result of a quick pace. But there are pitfalls to this format, because eventually the pace slowed as I began to wonder at the point of this list of women (and the resulting repetitiveness), and unfortunately the brief scenes of each woman’s life doesn’t allow for in-depth characterization.
A book like this will appeal to a larger audience because it isn’t as ‘magicky’ as your typical fantasy novel, instead focusing on the lives of the women involved. Each witch’s magic comes from their inherent power, but also from ritual, the family grimoire, frequent use, and appeals to the Goddess. As one who reads a lot of fantasy, I was less satisfied with the magical element because I was left with questions, such as: Where does the magic come from? How do they know it’s the magic working and not science or coincidence? What’s the point of the rituals? And other questions. Most mainstream readers may not be bothered by this, instead focusing on the mother-daughter relationships and how each woman uses the magic for her own ends, which often turns problematic and drives the tension of the novel.
A SECRET HISTORY OF WITCHES is less about the magic and more about themes of family–particularly the mother-daughter relationship–loyalty, and love. The mother-daughter relationship is of particular interest precisely because it’s so flawed in the book. It genuinely expresses the tension between a daughter who seeks her own way, and a mother who simply wants her daughter to be happy by avoiding the mother’s own poor fate. There’s also a flavor of feminism about the novel, because the mothers often insist–in a desire to encourage keeping magic secret–that their daughters need to understand how their magic gives them power. Men don’t like women to have power, and men find this affects their control over women and will do anything to stop it. This concept is discussed only superficially, without really addressing the more complicated issues with this idea, and so fell flat for me.
We follow the women from France, to the Cornish coast of England, and eventually to various English estates, and finally London. The setting is less important than the people who populate it, especially the men who influence the lives of the Orchiére women as husbands, as lovers, and as fathers. The prose is quite readable and easy to move quickly through.
If you’re trying to sneak a little magic into your book club, A SECRET HISTORY OF WITCHES will work (heck, it’s way better than a Nicholas Sparks…ug). Otherwise I wouldn’t want you to expect it to be more than what it appears, which is a fluffy summer read.
- Recommended Age: 14+
- Language: Almost none
- Violence: Some deaths, but without gruesome detail
- Sex: A few scenes, but not particularly detailed