I am a huge fan of historical fiction, add witches into the mix, and I am a super happy reader. I have been eagerly awaiting the release of Louisa Morgan’s debut novel A Secret History of Witches and it most certainly did not disappoint. I think all fans of Gothic historical sagas should be drawn to this multi-generational novel about a family of Breton witches whose talents descend through the female line, beginning in 1821 with Nanette Orchiére and winding its path over a century later to the beginnings of World War II with Veronica Selwyn. The daughter gains her power when she hits puberty, and she, like her ancestresses before her, must not only learn how to hone and wield this power, but keep it a secret from those who’d do their family harm.
At nearly 500 pages, this book might seem daunting, but it’s partitioned into five sections, individually focusing on a subsequent member of the Orchiére family as they flee persecution in France, set up roots in England, and eventually become involved in World War II. This was an easy book to get sucked into. At risk of utilizing an overused phrase, it’s a page-turner. From page one we’re dropped in the middle of a high-stakes scene, with the current matriarch Ursule, Nanette’s grandmother, protecting her clan from a group of witch-hunters that are on their tail – and the intrigue doesn’t stop there. I was captivated by Nanette’s story and watched her grow from a little girl into a young woman who eventually learns of the family craft.
The story unravels to the reader how, throughout centuries, Orchiére women have cultivated magical gifts, ranging from basic charms or talismans to complex spell-crafting and scrying, assisted by their animal familiars. Naturally, such behavior is poorly received by surrounding townsfolk and their own husbands from time to time, with reactions tending toward the murderous. But whether used to facilitate animal husbandry or social ambitions, their magic gives them power and agency, two attributes which have historically been in short supply for women.
Each of the five books within A Secret History of Witches covers a relatively brief but momentous period in its character’s life, usually when the woman in question is in her late teens to early twenties, relying on the next section to reveal that character as an older woman and her interactions with members of the next generations. As in real life, some of the mother-daughter relationships are sweet, some are fraught with conflict, and some are nonexistent due to varying circumstances. Every main character is distinct and has her own motivations, sometimes resulting in bittersweet results, though the women generally face the effects of their choices with good grace. Readers are certain to find at least one favorite character, and equally as likely to disagree strongly with at least one of the Orchiére women.
I was captivated by Nanette’s story and watched her grow from a little girl into a young woman who eventually learns of the family craft. After Nanette came her daughter Ursule, followed by her daughter Iréne, and so on and so forth. The story is quite literally what it says on the cover: a secret history of witches. To that effect, sometimes the story grew repetitive: girl is confused by the secrets her mother is keeping, girl finds out about said secret, girl receives powers at puberty, girl hones her magic but must hide it from ignorant outsiders. By the third daughter’s tale I already had a mental outline prepared for how her narrative would play out – and for the most part, it did. But what keeps even this repetition interesting is that each girl has a different reaction upon learning about her family lineage. Some are skeptical, others apathetic, and others hungry for the chance to use that power. Their reactions to witchcraft – especially Iréne’s – are major factors that influence how the rest of their narrative will unfold. Additionally, Morgan also depicts with visceral impact the roles of women in a male-centered world, and the dangers faced by anyone who doesn’t adhere to prevailing religious beliefs.
History buffs will enjoy the solid research and romance fans will find tragic fodder aplenty. Ultimately, A Secret History of Witches is a strong and engaging book. While it does falter and peter out at the end, you’ll still be hooked by these women. The importance and theme of family, as well as the intimate insight into their turbulent lives, gives this book an emotional foundation that makes you want to be with the Orchiéres wherever they go. Morgan’s prose pushes the overall narrative at a rapid pace that still allows for small moments of introspection, and she incorporates enough appropriate details about technological advances and fashion to distinguish one time period from another. A Secret History of Witches is an enjoyable novel, treating readers to glimpses into the history of a loving and complicated family, as well as the changing world around them. This book has become one of my favorite reads of 2018 thus far!