The Witch’s Daughter by Paula Brackston is a novel that merges historical fiction and fantasy, following the life of Bess Hawksmith. Raised in the peaceful village of Batcombe in Somerset, Bess is happy in her quiet life, tending to her family’s farm with her siblings and learning how to heal from her mother. When her idyllic childhood comes to an abrupt end with the arrival of the plague in 1628, Bess’ life is suddenly changed forever. Forced to seek the help of the seductive and nefarious Gideon Mathews, the local warlock, she ends up spending the next four centuries suffering from the price of his aid.
Embracing my inner witch
I am a self-proclaimed sucker for anything witchy, magical or supernatural in nature. Fantasy fiction about witches, warlocks, elves and the like is my jam. So I was all set for being enthralled by the magical nature of The Witch’s Daughter. Luckily, on the magical front, I wasn’t disappointed. Brackston’s novel is heavily sprinkled with references to spells, incantations, fairies and other recognisably Wicca practices that satisfied my magical taste. It’s most noticeable in Bess’ nesting activities.
When we are first introduced to Elizabeth in the modern day, she is settling into her new home through the almost ritualistic cultivation of her garden and arranging her new abode. We gently listen as she tends to and collects herbs and flowers from her garden that she’ll use to make her remedies, lotions and potions. In these first, fairly domestic scenes, Brackston shows us the daily, humble life of a witch. Although not dramatic, suspense-filled or interesting in terms of the narrative plot, I really loved Brackston’s use of these scenes to create a sense of home-making. After running from her pursuer for centuries, this ‘nesting’ on Elizabeth’s part only grows in importance as you realise what making a home means to her.
Following through Elizabeth’s homely rituals was also quite cathartic. A little bit like when you watch someone paint or cook, the descriptions of her gardening, cooking and general busying about her home made me want to pop to my local holistic shop and stock up on supplies to start making my own witchy concoctions. It’s a more earthy version of witchcraft than Hollywood’s or even some YA fiction, which was humbling and realistic, making it an inviting opening to the book and Bess’ life.
Moving at a snail’s pace
Although the comfortable pace at the start of the novel was nice from a scene-setting point of view, I was expecting the narrative to go up a notch after a couple of chapters. Much to my surprise, Brackston keeps the plot going at the same relaxed pace, switching from the modern day to parts of Bess’ past with ease and very little suspense, exhilaration or excitement.
For the whole duration of the novel, I felt like I was simply being told a story and asked only to listen—if I wanted to. Bess’ life was pleasantly imagined and pleasantly delivered, but at times you are left wanting more action and a faster-paced narrative. Don’t get me wrong. The book was not, at any point, slow moving. In fact, I devoured this book. But the pace was always consistent, never changing despite the fair share of what should have been high-action scenes.
A good example of this was the entrance of the plague into Batcombe, right at the start of the novel. Out of nowhere, the epidemic which killed 60% of Europe’s population, arrived in their village. It was literally like BAMB, the plague has arrived. No whispers of the Black Death afflicting nearby villages or rumours of it returning. Nada. It just didn’t fit. Plus, chilling whispers of half-said worries, reports of families dying off and the feeling of death approaching Batcombe from the outside would have created a frenzied, terrifying environment from which Brackston could have built up the suspense to Anne’s imprisonment. Instead, we spent an age waiting for Anne to die, and Bess to flee Batcombe from her witch-hunting, grief-stricken neighbours.
Snapshots across history
After the untimely and unexpected arrival of the plague and Anne’s long-drawn out death, The Witch’s Daughter follows Bess’ immortal life, flicking back and forth from the modern day to glimpses of her journey across time. From plague-ridden England in the early 17th century to late Victorian London, from France in WW1 and then back to Somerset in the early 21st century. This theme of an old immortal in a modern world is explored by other authors, and Brackston does do it justice, showing Bess’ difficulty to find a secure, long-term home, feeling at odds with the world after having lived for so long.
Yet despite living for several centuries, good old Elizabeth doesn’t seem to have learnt anything over her unusually long life. Immortals in other books of a similar ilk – Mathew de Clairmont in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Chronicles, Magnus Bane in Cassandra Claire’s The Mortal Instruments – they all have a timelessness to them, a wisdom that is a product of their long years wandering the earth.
Bess, on the other hand, seems just as naive and unthoughtful at the age of 384 as when she was a child – at points, I couldn’t help myself but say ‘Oh come on!’ out loud. Bess was unapologetically naive and short-sighted, despite having nearly four times the amount of experience to learn from than the average human. This was one of the reasons I found Bess so annoying as a protagonist. I really felt for her, truly I did. But I also expected her to know better. For the majority of her life, she seems to have acted like a teenager, not even being forward-thinking enough to change her surname to more effectively hide from Gideon.
Another thing that annoyed me about Bess’ long life, was that Brackston dedicated no page space to how Bess would have been affected by the English witch-hunting. Somerset, and England as a whole had its fair share of witch trials both before and after the prosecution of Bess’ mother. Yet Brackston fails to mention how Bess survived these early years in England as a young girl, alone and at risk of being hunted down as a ‘servant of Satan’. Neither does she show how living through the years of witch hunting affected her – surely this would have been something Bess would have been troubled by and placed her in a precarious position?
Another bugbear of mine is how Brackston doesn’t explain in enough detail, or any detail, how the satanic beliefs of Gideon, the Christan beliefs of Bess’ family and neighbours, and her later Wicca beliefs and practices fit in together. In the modern day, Elizabeth prays to the Goddess and mentions gods such as Pan. But she then talks about Gideon wanting to claim her soul, a very Christian notion.
Brackston seems to imply that there are two ways to become a witch. You can become a hedge witch, a solitary figure who in tune with nature and learns how to heal through having a deep knowledge of plants and the shifting patterns in nature. Or, as we find out later (too later I would argue) in the novel, you can become a witch by being initiated in the craft via a warlock’s magic, but you’ll be cursed. But Brackston never clarifies what this means.
It’s clear that Gideon pursues Bess because he believes her to be the prize he is owed after making some sort of deal with the devil long ago for a companion who could be his equal. But Brackston doesn’t explain how a warlock is different from a witch, or how the rivalling theological beliefs fit together. Gideon’s own sacrifices and beastly appearance fit with the idea of witches being the servants of Satan. But then does that mean the gods of Wicca are at odds with the Devil, and the Christian god is not in the picture? Or is it a three-way power dynamic?
Another area this is seen is Bess’ connections to a network of seemingly dead witches. There are references to her sisters of the craft, but there is no explanation of how she came to know them or their Wicca ways. They are far from her Christian upbringing – where did she learn all the cantations and spells? Was she a part of a coven and taught by them? If so, why is this not a prominent part of the book? Or as a sorceress does Bess intrinsically know how to perform all these spells, or is all her knowledge from what Gideon taught her? It’s all very unclear and frustrating if you ask me.
A little more action
If there was one thing I wanted more of in The Witch’s Daughter, it was action. Brackston’s novel dabbles in suspense-building, in high-paced fight scenes and supernatural battles. But overall, they are let down by the comfortable pace that characterises the whole book. In the show-downs between Bess and Gideon, I wanted my heart to be racing, to be perched on the edge of my seat frantically reading to find out what happens. The Witch’s Daughter left me completely unsatisfied. Every time, the fight would have barely begun before Bess had made her escape. One blast and that was it. Poof. Bye bye Bess.
Out of all the action scenes, arguably the climax of the novel is the most important. Sadly, it was also the most disappointing. For one, it all happened way too fast. After all the hardship that Elizabeth has endured in her various guises over the centuries, and after everything Gideon has put her through, I didn’t get enough closure from their final fight. You are left not knowing how Elizabeth feels, in shock of how quickly the fight has been and gone, left to comfort your disappointment with only Tegan’s optimistic evaluation of the situation. It’s all just a bit disjointed and unsatisfying, making for a frustrating read. As a reader, you feel deprived of a good literary fight, where more than one blast of magic is let loose.
Overall, The With’s Daughter is a good book and story. Yes, Brackston could have worked on the pace and plot of the narrative, building scenes upon the last. There are certainly missing spots in the tale of Bess Hawksmith, while some of the parts of her life that are mentioned are over before they have even begun.
But narrative speed and plot aside, I did thoroughly enjoy this book. The witchy world that Brackston creates draws you in and gets you hooked, before the pace of the novel begins (or should have begun). With more attention paid to certain scenes, this novel would have been a masterpiece. As it stands, it’s a nice Sunday read with enough magic to keep you interested.
Have you read The Witch’s Daughter? I’d love to know what you thought in the comments below! If you’re looking for books to add to your TBR list, I’ve got a couple of titles in mind in my Books section.