Review: ‘The Vanishing Witch’ by Karen Maitland

Blurb from GoodReads:

The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It’s a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust? The dour wool merchant? His impulsive son? The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes? Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones?

And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it’s time to fight back, it’s all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.

Review (contains spoilers):

f you’re looking for ‘Cadfael’, turn away! This is most definitely not your usual mediaeval murder mystery (if there is such a thing.) Seagull skulls, occult candles, smoke that turns into vipers, poppets (no, not the chocolate kind,) drowned corpses with stab wounds on their faces, rebellion, riots, seduction…this is pretty dark, and at times very grim, stuff. It is wonderfully Gothic and atmospheric, immersive and engrossing (I finished this in about three days,) and you really feel, when reading it, as though you are there at the scene, with Maitland’s vividly-depicted characters: Robert, a wealthy and greedy, domineering merchant who is at times naive, gullible and easily seduced.  Jan, his eldest son, desperately trying to take over the family business and prove his wealth to his father, and the Widow Catlin- mysterious, silver-tongued, seemingly pleasant and kind but underneath…well, she is far more sinister.

It’s not entirely clear at first what Catlin wants with Robert, although it becomes clear soon enough that she will accomplish it at any means. I liked reading about her strangely beautiful, unusually clever children, too- even if Edward was clearly eeeeeevil, and ‘sweet little Leonia’ not nearly as sweet as everyone thinks- in fact, the little girl is rather twisted, and she soon lures Robert’s vulnerable younger son, Adam, into her web. This is a rich and multi-layered book, but it is highly violent at times, and also very long- I felt as though if the pages had been whittled down it could have had more action, and a quicker plot. I was also not sure of the relevance of the poor bargeman Gunter and his wife Nonie’s story- I felt it dragged a lot. There seemed to be nothing but misery upon misery there. The proem part at the beginning also left me feeling perplexed, as I could not really see how it linked, and I wasn’t sure of the ‘ghost narrator’ with the creepy little ghost ferret. (Yes, really.) At times it felt like an overly-intense and emotional read, and I felt as though it could have benefited from some humour, and not quite such a ‘WTF??’ open ending.

Overall rating: 6 out of 10

Read if you enjoyed: ‘Holy Fools’ by Joanne Harris, ‘Dark Sister’ by Graham Joyce, ‘The Lady of the Rivers’ by Philippa Gregory

This book in four words: Dark. Historical. Supernatural. Bleak

All images via Tumblr


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