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Book: “The Book of Gothel” by Mary McMyne
Publishing Info: Redhook, July 2022
Where Did I Get this Book: from the publisher!
Book Description: Haelewise has always lived under the shadow of her mother, Hedda—a woman who will do anything to keep her daughter protected. For with her strange black eyes and even stranger fainting spells, Haelewise is shunned by her medieval village, and her only solace lies in the stories her mother tells of child-stealing witches, of princes in wolf-skins, of an ancient tower cloaked in mist, where women will find shelter if they are brave enough to seek it.
Then, Hedda dies, and Haelewise is left unmoored. With nothing left for her in her village, she sets out to find the legendary tower her mother used to speak of—a place called Gothel, where Haelewise meets a wise woman willing to take her under her wing.
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 unlocks a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles behind the world Haelewise has always known…
Review: I always love fairytale retellings, so it was pretty much a given that I would get my hands on this book somehow this summer. It also just happened that bookclub had finished up reading “Circe” (which I loved), so when I saw that this was also being compared to that plus “Wicked,” I knew this was going to jump my order of reading for July releases. It’s always so interesting to see what authors manage to dream up for characters who are not only “wicked,” but also only feature very briefly in someone else’s tale. Not only do these bare bones characters need to be fleshed out, but you have to imagine an entire history and world that will weave into a tale that must remain somewhat familiar to readers. It’s a challenge, for sure, but there are also a number of ways to go with it. Let’s dive in!
In medieval Germany, almost anything can get a woman labeled “witch.” So, between her strange fainting spells and her powerful, midwife mother, Haelewise is doomed to a childhood of side-eyes and whispers. When tragedy strikes her small family and what stability she has managed to find for herself is shaken beneath her feet, Haelewise sets off for a fabled tower her mother once spoke of. The mysterious Gothel is a refuge for women who do not fit into the narrow molds offered to them, and there Haelewise’s understanding of herself and the world explode outwards, as powerful forces clash and another strange girl, Rika, carries a secret that could change everything.
There was a lot to like about this retelling! For one thing, “Rapunzel” seems like a fresh beat in the fairytale retellings subgenre, so it immediately felt new and interesting. However, that’s not enough to make a story great. Right off the bat, it was clear the author had done her research into medieval Germany. The society, language, and culture all felt spot-on. Obviously, there was a good amount of magic, especially in the final bit of the book, but without that, it would have been easy to confuse oneself into thinking this was a historical fiction novel instead of fantasy at all. We even had a notable historical figure make an appearance, which I absolutely loved. Part of me wishes we had seen more of them, but then again, it wasn’t their story so we wouldn’t want them to steal the show.
Haelewise’s story feels achingly familiar to what we can imagine life for a strange woman in this time period would be. Her fainting fits would likely have an easily understandable medical diagnosis in our time, and it would barely affect her life. But in this time, even such a little thing as this is enough to get her marked as strange and make others leery of her. I really liked the way her character is worked into the classic fairytale, and even how “Rapunzel” herself has a tale that twists out in a unique way, though still familiar enough to be recognizable.
The book plays out over the entirety of Haelewise’s life, so we do get to see a decent amount of her childhood and youth, alongside her years as an adult. While I liked this in general, I did feel that the balance of the romance was slightly off. We got to see Haelewise and Matthuas a lot when they are younger, but the I didn’t feel like we got to see enough of them together as adults. Yes, the romance is definitely not the heart of the story, but for me, I can always do with a dash more!
Overall, I really liked this book. It’s well-researched and a fresh view of a less popular fairytale. Fans of fairytale re-tellings, especially those that focus on women who played only small roles in their original tales (ala “Circe” and “Wicked”) should definitely check this one out! Aldo, don’t forget to enter to win an ARC copy of this book!
Rating 8: Right up my alley for a fairytale retelling from a “villain’s” perspective!
“The Book of Gothel” is on this Goodreads list: Debuts in 2022