A Secret History of Witches is a 2017 historical fantasy novel by Louisa Morgan. It was released in September 2017 by Orbit. The novel was nominated for the 2018 Endeavor Award. The novel can be purchased here by Bookshop.org
An ancient and dangerous power is being handed down from mother to daughter through some of the most consequential historic events of the last two centuries. After Grandmére Ursule gives her life to save her tribe, her magic seems to die with her. Even so, her family keeps the Old Faith, practicing the spells and rites that have been handed from mother to daughter for generations. Until one day, Ursule’s young granddaughter steps into the circle, and magic flows anew. From early 19th century Brittany to London during the Second World War, five generations of witches fight the battles of their time, deciding how far they are willing to go to protect their family, their heritage, and ultimately, all of our futures.
This novel is told from the perspective of five women, each the daughter of the previous narrator. The five women in order are Nanette, Ursule, Irene, Morwen and Veronica. While each narrator had a different personality, I struggled to connect with most of them, with Veronica being the exception, though this is most likely because Veronica has the longest story of everyone. As a reader, I wasn’t able to get a feeling for any of the women’s personalities and that made me feel less connected with the story. Additionally, most of the women are unlikable in some way, and with the exception of Irene who is “supposed” to be unlikable, it clearly wasn’t an intentional decision by the author. They tend to all come across as self-centered and vain, uncaring of how their actions effect anyone around them.
The story itself felt very repetitive. Each section of the book follows a different witch in the family line, skipping ahead by about a decade in between narrators, however the story doesn’t change all that much when the time period changes. Each woman learns she is a witch and then spends years learning the craft while trying to hide their magic from outsiders. It all felt rather repetitive, and I had hoped this was leading towards something in Veronica’s story, the last in the novel, with the past experiences playing a big role in the conclusion, but that did not happen. The characters seemed to each run into the same obstacles and go on the same journey. Additionally, the story of each character seemed to end just as it was becoming interesting. Since this novel is about mothers and daughters, each part ends with the daughter becomes a mother or is about to. For example. Nanette’s part of the story, called the “Book of Nanette” ends not long after Ursule is born. Ursule’s portion ends shortly after Irene is born and so on. In some cases, this decision fit the story very well, but in others, it felt like a letdown, because some interesting events then happen “off-screen” which made me feel even less connected to the story. There was something that happened in the last section of the book, with a character based on a historical figure, that I had a lot of issues with because it really didn’t fit with the rest of the book. It’s inclusion in the plot felt pretty clunky and it was entirely too convenient the way that both the character and the connection to the plot were handled.
I enjoyed the magic system in this book. The magic often took a backseat to the relationships between the mothers and daughters, but I liked what I did see. The magic itself was very fluid and I enjoyed seeing how, even when the magic wasn’t a focus, it was clearly a major part of each characters’ lives. For parts of the book, the fact that these characters can do magic creates a tense undercurrent in every interaction that they have. The magic was also varied enough that when it was used and how it was used didn’t feel boring. It was written in a way that allowed for surprises to happen.
The writing in this novel is solid. On a technical level, Louisa Morgan’s writing is very good. The plot felt boring and the characters were hard to connect to, but Morgan’s ability to weave the story together impressed me. I’ve said I wasn’t a fan of the plot, but the writing decisions that were made feel intentional. The author did a lot of research about everyday life for women, in different social classes, from 1821 through the end of World War II. She put a great deal of thought into how public opinion in each era might shape each character. However, I wish the plot felt more connected to history itself. The blurb mentions “the most consequential historical events” in the last two centuries, however only the last section, Veronica’s story set during World War II, feels directly connected to any major historical event. It would have been interesting to see how each witch dealt with the trials and tribulations of her era, instead of each witch living in her era and the fact that she is a witch not really meaning much in how she lives her life.
A big problem I had with the novel was the underlying commentary about power and the actions of men against women with power. Each character is told that they must hide their magic because if men found out, they’d kill them. Generation after generation, the same ideas about why the witches have to stay hidden is exactly the same even as society changes. I doubt being burned at the stake was a genuine concern for women in the 1930s. Men, with maybe two exceptions, are shown to be either evil or idiotic. I don’t like this motif for a few reasons. First, this way of thinking gives the book the appearance of being about feminism and women’s empowerment, but it shortly becomes clear that it’s that “lazy” kind of feminism and empowerment that falls apart the more you reflect on it. None of the main characters feel empowered or do anything empowering for the most part. And painting men as “the bad guys” doesn’t make a story inherently feminist. My second issue is that this motif feels hypocritical pretty quickly. The witches fear men, but they are capable, and in some cases do, cause as much pain as men do. In the case of one character, this way of thinking kind of puts the book in the position where it all but states “this is only bad/abusive if a man does it” which just left a bad taste in my mouth.
A Secret History of Witches is a book that, on paper, checked a lot of my favorite boxes. It’s a saga, spanning several generations, about a family of witches and how their witchcraft impacts not only their lives, but also the lives of those around them, and possibly history as we know it. In practice, however, this book felt like a letdown from the characters to the plot to the troubling theme. I don’t regret reading the book, since I refuse to regret reading any book, but it wasn’t the book for me. This novel fits into a very specific niche, however, and I’m not sure what kind of reader I’d recommend this to.
Rating: 1.5 Stars
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