Book Review: The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston
Bess’s story begins in the 1600s. She’s always had a talent for magic, delighting her younger sister with the ability to manipulate candle flames, and other small tricks. While Bess chafes at the restricted role a girl of her social standing is supposed to accept without question, she demonstrates a keen interest in her mother’s stock of herbal remedies.
When the plague devastates her town, grieving survivors want someone to blame. Women who were once highly sought as healers, are now accused of witchcraft, including Bess’s mother. Bess goes to Gideon Masters for protection and he saves her from one fate but condemns her to another. He turns her into a witch, and an immortal one at that. Recognizing Gideon for the wicked man he is, she spends the next few centuries trying to elude him. It’s a lonely life — she doesn’t allow herself to form close relationships. There have been a couple of lapses over the years which have ended in heartbreak, but when a young girl shows up at the edge of her garden, a girl who reminds her of her sister, Bess gives in one last time to the need for companionship. To protect Tegan, Bess determines a way to deal with Gideon once and for all.
This book both enthralled and exasperated me. The rich context for each chapter in Bess’s long life was mostly easy to fall into. Mostly. There were details that bugged me and took me out of the story. Spoilers follow.
I wanted Bess’s mom to try harder to deflect the accusations thrown her way but I can accept that she felt there was no point. However, the “watch and observe” scene did not work for me at all. Even if I believed that Anne had embraced the dark side of magic (and that would have required storytelling that wasn’t present), there was nothing to indicate that she would be so incompetent or foolish as to allow her familiars to betray her in such an obvious way. There was also nothing in her character that would allow me to believe that she would not protect her friend. If I stretch, I can consider that maybe, just maybe, her mysterious, magically-binding promise to Gideon was that when the time came and she was accused of witchcraft, she not deny it or any manifestations that proved her guilt. Even with that stretch, however, I still can’t reconcile myself to Anne’s utter complacency in the face of her friend’s terror and shared condemnation.
The horror of this period of history is that women were so easily tried and found guilty of witchcraft. Since the scene with the familiars does not seem consistent with Anne’s storyline, I don’t know why it’s there. It certainly wasn’t needed to condemn Anne — I was convinced that she would be found guilty, whether anything showed up that evening or not. It didn’t serve to warn Bess away from Gideon. It didn’t even serve to make me, the reader, more apprehensive about Gideon — it was always clear that he was evil with a capital E. It seemed gratuitous and because it didn’t add to the story, I felt like it lessened the story.
The relationship between Gideon and Bess bothered me as well. She knows that he’s a bad man — she knew that before he exacted a deal from her mother, and since the scene with the familiars is in the story, that scene makes it even more implausible that she would go to him, much less make a blind promise to him. Her circumstances are not her mother’s. She’s a smart girl, and she’s not yet been accused of witchcraft. Given Bess’s pluck, I expected her to set out on her own. Yes, she promised her mom that she would go to Gideon for help but people break promises all of the time, especially when those promises are made under duress — I don’t buy into the ‘I promised, therefore I have to do it’ storyline.
Those were my biggest problems with the story. Minor grievances include the fact that Bess says she changes her name constantly but in each time period she shares with us, she uses some variation of her first name but always uses the same last name. Really? Seems like the last name would be the giveaway. And despite the fact that Gideon has pursued her over the centuries, she only picks up on his super-evil vibe part of the time? He’s even gotten close enough for her to fall in love with him, and yet she falls for yet another man who knows much more about her than he should. It’s hard to reconcile her being super-sharp one moment, and not-so-sharp the next. Her other relationships were believable but not her romances.
I would have liked at least one more glimpse into her past, a glimpse of her coming to terms with her transformation. She alludes to learning from different witches over the years — it would have been interesting to have witnessed at least one of those periods of her life. She knew very little of witchcraft when she was transformed and what she did know was purely dark. We missed an integral part of her story when we jumped straight from her transformation to a point in time when she has already accepted what she is and has a solid knowledge of good magic.
The Witch’s Daughter offers an intriguing premise, well-chosen historical contexts, and a compelling main character. Despite its flaws, it’s a page-turner — even at my most aggravated, I could not set it aside. More attention to crafting the interactions between Bess and Gideon was needed. Too often, each of them made choices that seemed more convenient for moving the story along than consistent with their characters. Still a very good read though!