Book: “Tidelands” by Philippa Gregory
Publication Info: Simon & Schuster, August 2019
Where Did I Get this Book: e-ARC from the publisher
Book Description: England 1648. A dangerous time for a woman to be different . . .
Midsummer’s Eve, 1648, and England is in the grip of civil war between renegade King and rebellious Parliament. The struggle reaches every corner of the kingdom, even to the remote Tidelands – the marshy landscape of the south coast.
Alinor, a descendant of wise women, crushed by poverty and superstition, waits in the graveyard under the full moon for a ghost who will declare her free from her abusive husband. Instead she meets James, a young man on the run, and shows him the secret ways across the treacherous marsh, not knowing that she is leading disaster into the heart of her life.
Suspected of possessing dark secrets in superstitious times, Alinor’s ambition and determination mark her out from her neighbours. This is the time of witch-mania, and Alinor, a woman without a husband, skilled with herbs, suddenly enriched, arouses envy in her rivals and fear among the villagers, who are ready to take lethal action into their own hands.
Review: Philippa Gregory was probably one of the authors I associate most strongly with my first experiences reading historical fiction as a teenager. With a few exceptions, up to that point I read fantasy/sci-fi and really that was it. But I whizzed through “The Other Boleyn Girl” and was hooked on a new genre from there on out. I read a good number of Gregory’s works over the years, and enjoyed many them. However, after a bit, I was ready to move on from her tried and true political, royal scheming stories that were starting to feel a bit stale to me. So I was excited when I heard about “Tidelands” and saw that we would be getting something outside of that wheelhouse with a story about a poor widow who comes under suspicion as a witch.
Alinor is a woman between worlds. Her husband is missing, so she is not a widow. So she’s still a wife but one without a provider, left to live independently with all of the challenges that come with it, but none of the securities that come with being a widow (mostly having to do with a woman’s honor and all of that fun stuff). But her and her children’s lives change when she runs across a priest attempting to find safety out on the ever-changing and dangerous tidelands. New opportunities are now opening before her, but with these changes come new dangers, and the watchful and suspicious eyes of neighbors are always watching.
It was nice to return to a historical fiction novel that wasn’t also a mystery. Looking back over what I’ve read the last year or so, almost all of my historical reading has been a combination of the two genres. Gregory has always impressed with her detailed descriptions of life in the time period in which her stories take place and the historical accuracy of the political and cultural experiences of those living then. This book in particular delved into the brewing tensions between the new church and the old, the new king and the old. I didn’t know a whole lot about the parties and beliefs at play here, but I enjoyed learning more about it throughout this novel. I especially enjoyed the way that Gregory approached it through Alinor’s eyes, as a common woman who has lived an isolated life away from much of the drama that is gripping the nation.
But with these details also comes a fairly slowly moving plot. The story takes a long time to get going and, thinking back on it, I’m not sure it ever even did, other than a very brief section near the end. Much of it revolves around Alinor’s romantic plot line, and even that moved at a fairly glacial speed. Once I accepted that that was what the story would be, I was better able to settle in, being now less focused on desperately trying to locate a plot. But even then, the story felt out of balance. It’s one thing to not have a strong plot in favor of focusing on characters and their relationships, but I was also never strongly attached to any of those either.
I also had hoped for a bit more from the fantastical elements teased in the description. I wasn’t expecting a fantasy, of course, but I had hoped for more on the witch front. Again, it took a long time to get there, and then it felt pretty rushed. The ending itself seemed to come out of nowhere and just kind of…end. It wrapped up in only a few pages, leaving several subplots unexplained and with an abrupt shift in characters’ lives, with little build up or exploration provided. This is the first in a series, so there’s room to expand on these things from here. But even with a series, each book should feel self-contained and have a natural beginning, middle, and end. Here, the end felt slapped on because the book needed to end, nothing more.
Overall, this was a bit of a lackluster read for me. While I liked many of Gregory’s early books, this one reminded me why I had stopped keeping up with her works. There is nothing technically wrong with it, but the story never grabbed me, the characters were not especially likable, and I felt like the historical details, while accurate and reflective of Gregory’s strong research, overwhelmed what little story there was left. Fans of her later work may very well enjoy this book, but it wasn’t really for me, sadly.
Rating 6: A bit too slow, a bit too detailed, and a bit off the mark at the end.
“Tidelands” is a new book so it isn’t on any relevant Goodreads lists, but it should be on “Witch Hunts in Historical Fiction.”
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