This atmospheric, witchy tale really took me by surprise!
Book: The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne
Publication date: 26th July 2022
Ownership: Review copy sent free of charge by Orbit Books. All opinions my own.
Content warnings: violence, injury, and death; ableism/medieval understanding of illness and disability; misogyny and sexual assault; difficult pregnancy and childbirth.
Everyone knows the story of Rapunzel in her tower, but do you know the story of the witch who put her there? Mary McMyne’s spellbinding debut reveals the truth behind the fairy tale—the truth they never wanted you to know, as only a witch might tell it.
Germany, 1156. With her strange black eyes and even stranger fainting spells, young Haelewise has never quite fit in. Shunned by her village, her only solace lies in the stories her mother tells of child-stealing witches, of princes in wolf-skins, and of an ancient tower cloaked in mist, where women will find shelter if they are brave enough to seek it.
When her mother dies, Haelewise is left unmoored. With nothing left for her in her village, she sets out to find the legendary tower her mother spoke of—a place called Gothel, where she meets a wise woman willing to take Haelewise under her wing. There, she discovers that magic is found not only in the realm of fairy tales.
But Haelewise is not the only woman to seek refuge at Gothel. It’s also a haven for a girl named Rika, who carries with her a secret the church strives to keep hidden. A secret that reveals a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles, behind the world Haelewise has always known.
I’ve read a lot of retellings by now, and I find that Rapunzel retellings in particular can be hit or miss – something about the way the story works doesn’t always lend itself to a more modern interpretation of the characters, unlike, say, Beauty and the Beast. I was a little bit apprehensive going into The Book of Gothel, partly for this reason and partly because it was compared to The Bear and the Nightingale, a book I really didn’t enjoy – but I needn’t have worried on either account. This is a very solid and enjoyable historical fantasy that offers easter eggs for those on the lookout for Rapunzel-ish elements, but otherwise it’s a pretty original story. Think Juliet Marillier or Kate Forsyth, rather than a straightforward retelling. It’s dark in realistic ways, and feels very much rooted in the historical context, so if you’re looking for shiny fae fantasy, this isn’t going to fill that need for you, but if you’re after a quieter tale of women’s resilience and innate magic, you’ll be very happy with this.
In fact, I’d go so far as to say I don’t really think this needed the Rapunzel side of things at all! Haelewise (later to become Rapunzel’s witch, though not in the circumstances you might expect) is a really engaging character and I loved the world she moved in, with its shadowy forests and moments of peace. Her coming of age is very readable and while it would have been easy to feel like this was a depressing book, there’s something that kept it interesting to me, something in the way that Haelewise is written to be a believably strong, flawed woman. The plot explores patriarchy, religion, feminism, and sisterhood, but it’s all juggled very deftly, and I was impressed by how hopeful it left me feeling.
If you’re in the mood for a grounded historical fantasy centred firmly on women, The Book of Gothel is a great bet even if you don’t normally like retellings. I mentioned it above, but if you loved Kate Forsyth’s Bitter Greens, I think you need to read this too! Four out of five cats.