Witchborn by Nicholas Bowling, novel, 325 pages, published by Chicken House in 2017.
It is 1577 in England; Queen Elizabeth sits upon the throne, Mary Queen of Scots is imprisoned for treason, London is filled with filthy streets and dubious characters, and witch-hunting is an active sport. In the little hamlet of Fordham, Alyce’s life is upturned when the hideous Mr Hopkins and his off-sider Caxton come to accuse her mother of witchcraft. Alyce is able to escape, but the witch finders are on her tail as she makes her way to London to deliver a letter to a man her mother said would help her. Her journey is not an easy one, but one that she does not have to make alone once she befriends a young actor, Solomon. As her powers swell uncontrollably, and the witch finders continue to hunt her, she can’t help but wonder, what is so important about her?
This was an interesting historical fiction, embellished with real witches capable of far more than healing herbs and mysterious incantations. I expected witchcraft, but not the historical aspect of the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Stuart; I found this spin on history rather intriguing. The whole story was quite immersing, and flowed smoothly with good pace. It was a bit dark, with black magic and necromancy at play, with some violence and death, but that only added to the appeal. I did think that Alyce’s emerging power should have been more thoroughly explored.
I enjoyed falling into sixteenth century London, though I am glad I don’t have to live there! The description of the streets was so detailed, I could almost smell the stench of the markets, the foulness of unwashed bodies, and the murkiness of the Thames. It was not an appealing mix, but the sights of the Tower, the rickety shops and houses, the city gates, and the countryside beyond were much more enticing. The clothing and behaviour of the people matched the setting and time well, completing the scene expertly.
I connected more with Solomon than Alyce, despite feeling great sadness and pity for her situation. Solomon’s situation wasn’t a bunch of daffodils either, but he was less hardened by his experiences than Alyce seemed to be. I liked his amiable nature, and his occasional awkwardness; he was a good friend to Alyce before he even knew her well. Alyce was strong and determined, and sometimes wilful. They made a good pair. Many of the other characters were interesting too, though they were not as developed as Alyce and Solomon. I’m afraid that Caxton may visit my nightmares some nights… what a horrible beast.
Witchborn is suitable for upper primary and high school students. It is a good read for anyone who enjoys magic, witches and historical fantasy.