The concept of women’s power being rooted in magic has become a regular theme in recent fiction, and The Secret History of Witches adds to that growing genre. Louisa Morgan has created a captivating tale of six generations of Romani witches, women whose talents include “simples” like healing potions, knowledge of the weather, affinity for animals or growing things, and, most importantly, seeing the future.
The story begins in Brittany in the early decades of the 19th century, where the Orchiere family is cornered in a ring of standing stones by an angry mob out to burn them. Matriarch Ursule, a powerful seer, uses her power to hide her family. This act takes her life, but not before she sees her family travel across the sea to a farm on a cliff, where they will live in peace. The family buries Ursule between the stones, and heads off across the sea, where they find the farm, just as Ursule predicted, on the Cornish coast. The sisters continue to perform the family rites in a hidden cave, but none of them possess Ursule’s magic until the youngest sister, Nanette, comes of age. Nanette is the only sister to whom Ursule’s scrying stone responds.
The stone becomes the thread tying the family together through subsequent generations. The stone is the indicator of magic – if it responds to you, you’ve got it. Each generation experiences its own heartaches and tragedies. At the same time, the belief in magic waxes and wanes, until we end up with Veronica, who has no mother or aunt to initiate her into the magic of the Orchiere witches. This is where the story stretches belief a bit, by introducing Veronica to a coven of aristocratic witches led by the Queen of England during World War II. The best part? The Queen is descended from the Glamis witches. If you know Shakespeare, you’ll get the reference. The Queen’s coven instructs Veronica in the magic of her ancestors and draws her into their work focused on defeating Hitler, including exhausting work meant to manipulate the weather to assist with the Normandy invasion.
Morgan has created a readable, entertaining story around women and how they acquire and wield power. The writing and character development is well done, with a strong thread binding each generation together. I found Morgan’s honest portrayals of each generation’s “witch” to be refreshing, meaning they were not all paragons. In fact, some were downright unlikable. She balances the stories of each generation skillfully to demonstrate the idea that magic and power can corrupt if not used properly, culminating in the decision by Morwen, the second-to-last witch, of putting it away altogether.
The introduction of the Queen’s coven was unexpected and rather delightful. This is the woman I’ve known as the Queen Mother – the dainty, perfectly coiffed woman off to the side of the current Queen Elizabeth. I found it interesting that the Queen laments that neither of her daughters has shown any inclination to the craft, although Margaret might still have a chance. I also appreciated the way in which the author brought the Orchiere line full circle by connecting Veronica with a young man of Romani descent from Brittany, where her family originated.
This joins The Witch’s Daughter and other books by Paula Brackston, the Physick Book of Deliverance Dane by Katherine Howe, the All Souls Trilogy by Deborah Harkness, Practical Magic by Alice Hoffman, and the Waverly novels by Sarah Addison Allen as one of my favorite “witchy” books. Recommended.
Publication Date: September 5, 2017
Thanks to Edelweiss+ for the review copy