HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘The King’s Witch’ by Tracy Borman

As she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth, Frances Gorges longs for the fields and ancient woods of her parents’ Hampshire estate, where she has learned to use the flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer.

Frances is happy to stay in her beloved countryside when the new King arrives from Scotland, bringing change, fear and suspicion. His court may be shockingly decadent, but James’s religion is Puritan, intolerant of all the old ways; he has already put to death many men for treason and women for witchcraft.

So when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to court, she is trapped in a claustrophobic world of intrigue and betrayal – and a ready target for the twisted scheming of Lord Cecil, the King’s first minister.
Surrounded by mortal dangers, Frances finds happiness only with the precocious young Princess Elizabeth, and Tom Wintour, the one courtier she can trust.

Or can she?

cover and blurb via amazon

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I am a very big Tracy Borman fan. I did not angle for a review copy, instead I went to a store and purchased her first novel myself. The new release stand was full on release day, here on the other side of the world, a rare occasion for the books I tend to review.

The King’s Witch opens with poor old Elizabeth I, in her dying moments. The book follows Frances Gorges, an expert in healing and herbs. King James is now on the throne, a dramatic change for England. Women healing and using herbs and their developed skills, rather than that of a male doctor, are seen as evil, as devil’s work. King James is terrified of witches and witchcraft, so to be a woman with knowledge makes young Frances right in the firing line against puritanical opinions and fears. Frances does have allies, Tom, a courtier, and the Princess Elizabeth. Whether she can trust her own friends is never truly clear to Frances.

This novel starts slowly, showing Frances’ life, indeed lives for ‘normal’ people in this awkward time period in England. What I did see early on was that there would be a twist coming, which keeps you turning the page. Frances grows as their reader gets to know her, from a scared girl into a woman who gets to see behind the lavish exteriors of a royal court for what really lies in individuals.

When reading Borman, you know you are getting historical accuracy with your fiction (I swear some people only read to point out inaccuracies in fiction; you lot will be disappointed with this). It is nice to hear from a new voice, rather than through the eyes of characters done so often before. Being cast as a witch was simple in the 17th century, all a woman had to do was piss off the closest man and she would be accused. So being a woman with knowledge naturally scares the pants off men. While the king is determined to cast out all remaining Catholics in England, religion remains ingrained in all decisions made.

Frances’ biggest issue is that her friend Tom is Tom Wintour, one of the men in the gunpowder plot with Guy Fawkes (shout-out to all of us born on November 5!). Tom is ready to blow up parliament and the attention to the how’s and why’s rather than simply the actions taken in 1603 is beautifully told. The gunpowder plot men are generally thought of as crazies, when they actually had quite an elaborate plan and motive. While we all know what happened to the gunpowder plot, seeing it through the eyes of someone close to these men makes it painful to read through, knowing the conclusion.

I really enjoyed reading this book; I went in with high expectations and was not disappointed. Love, torture, witchcraft, what a combination to write about and get to muse over, knowing that the early 1600’s really was one hell of a cauldron of superstition. Frances’ uncle, the Earl of Northampton, makes an appearance as a sometimes friend, sometimes overly creepy uncle everyone doesn’t want visiting, and don’t forget Lord Cecil, a grump at the best of times, aiding the king’s paranoia for gain but harming Frances’ safety even more.

Some are witches being killed, others are being tortured and executed for trying to change the monarchy. You know it’s all going to end in tears but you can’t stop reading anyway. Thank you to Tracy Borman for humanising those in an often misunderstood piece of history.

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HISTORICAL BOOK REVIEW SERIES: ‘Heroines of the Medieval World’ by Sharon Bennett Connolly

These are the stories of women, famous, infamous and unknown, who shaped the course of medieval history. The lives and actions of medieval women were restricted by the men who ruled the homes, countries and world they lived in. It was men who fought wars, made laws and dictated religious doctrine. It was men who were taught to read, trained to rule and expected to fight. Today, it is easy to think that all women from this era were downtrodden, retiring and obedient housewives, whose sole purpose was to give birth to children (preferably boys) and serve their husbands. Heroines of the Medieval World looks at the lives of the women who broke the mould: those who defied social norms and made their own future, consequently changing lives, society and even the course of history.

Some of the women are famous, such as Eleanor of Aquitaine, who was not only a duchess in her own right but also Queen Consort of France through her first marriage and Queen Consort of England through her second, in addition to being a crusader and a rebel. Then there are the more obscure but no less remarkable figures such as Nicholaa de la Haye, who defended Lincoln Castle in the name of King John, and Maud de Braose, who spoke out against the same king’s excesses and whose death (or murder) was the inspiration for a clause in Magna Carta.

Women had to walk a fine line in the Middle Ages, but many learned to survive – even flourish – in this male-dominated world. Some led armies, while others made their influence felt in more subtle ways, but all made a contribution to their era and should be remembered for daring to defy and lead in a world that demanded they obey and follow.

cover and blurb viz amazon

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I have spent a long time with my head in academic history books, so to read something that reads more like a story was a welcome relief. Heroines of the Medieval World is a book hard to get here in NZ, so when a copy generously floated my way, I grabbed it with both hands. The first thing I thought was – do we still use the word ‘heroine?’ Should it not just be ‘heroes?’ But then people may purchase and then get their egos crushed by finding out all the heroes are women. That only made me like this book more.

The book is great, separated into chapters about women from all over Europe. The book writes about the women of England and France, but also from Spain (yay!) and even as far east as Kiev. There are Warrior Heroines, Literary Heroines, Religious Heroines and Scandalous Heroines. You can read them in order, or however you like depending on your mood. I enjoyed how The Pawns weren’t simply bartering gifts, but smart women in their own right, and the Medieval Mistresses were more fleshed out (excuse the pun) than the simply fallen women ideal.

You won’t be confused between your Eleanors, your Matildas or your Isabels, and while you will read about well-known heroines, they are also great forgotten women given fresh air. The women are not viewed as heroines through 21st century eyes, rather they are simply celebrated for their strength in the time period while on their own crusades. They are heroines for all centuries. Putting together such a thorough assembly of women must have taken considerable time and energy, so treat yourself to the author’s hard work and gain further insight to the women that came before us. Heroines have far more skills and techniques than any hero.