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Review: A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan [Hocus Pocus Readathon #3]

An ancient and dangerous power is being handed down from mother to daughter through some of the most consequential historic events of the last two centuries.

After Grandmére Ursule gives her life to save her tribe, her magic seems to die with her. Even so, her family keeps the Old Faith, practicing the spells and rites that have been handed from mother to daughter for generations. Until one day, Ursule’s young granddaughter steps into the circle, and magic flows anew.

From early 19th century Brittany to London during the Second World War, five generations of witches fight the battles of their time, deciding how far they are willing to go to protect their family, their heritage, and ultimately, all of our futures.

Goodreads

What is A Secret History of Witches about?

This book is about the Orchiere women, and the journey they and their magic take. Beginning in the early nineteenth century, we see a family of Romani travelers that carry the gift of witchcraft with them. Persecuted wherever they go, the family follow the advice of their matriarch to escape to the rural Cornish countryside and start a new farming life there. Unfortunately, they never quite settle into life there and face hardships again and again. The women of the family must carry on their line, protect their legacy, and hide their secrets as each generation of the family faces their own personal struggles.

Genre: Historical Fantasy

The settings range from historical Brittany to World War II London, and though much of the story is concerned with the day to day lives of the women of these times, there is a distinctive fantasy flare. The witchcraft hidden by the Orchiere legacy isn’t just a craft or a religious practice, real magic is employed on occasion.

Tropes: Mother Daughter Relationships

A big factor in each section of this novel is how the POV character relates to her mother. While our first POV, Nanette, lost her mother and grandmother at a very young age, each subsequent woman has a brief story arc regarding her relationship with her own mother.

Plot: A Generational Story of Witches

I would say that though each character has her own plot to deal with, the overarching story of the novel is that of the family as a whole. The regular struggle of hiding their craft, preserving their family legacy, and dealing with their own familial issues mother to daughter.

The Good

I really enjoyed the way this story is laid out. The use of each generation of woman, telling a new story, was clever and well executed in my opinion. I enjoyed getting to know each daughter in turn, and there were aspects of dramatic irony thanks to know the fates of the women who came before. I also really enjoyed some of the relationships for their complexity. The love that carries through the generations comes through differently, and it was really interesting to see that. I also liked the way the magic manifested differently to each woman, depending on her goals and ambition.

The Okay

I do wish we got to see more of each character. I’d say that only Nanette really has a fully conclusive story, as hers is the only one seen from beginning to end. The subsequent women all had somewhat open endings, where we were told a wrap up in the next generation, as opposed to actually experiencing and seeing how her story ended. I also found the stakes got lower and lower in regards to the magic despite the continued pressure of it. I think by a certain point, the fear and secrecy became overblown and excessive and it would have been nice to see a reminder of what they had to lose.

The Bad

I took one great issue with this book, though admittedly I am not the person to discuss it at length. As far as I can discover, Louisa Morgan is not a Romani person–but I do not know for sure. The origins of the Orchiere line is that of a Romani traveling family, and they also harbor the secret of witchcraft. The brutal persecution of the Romani people is indisputable fact, and this is represented accurately in the novel as recounted by Nanette’s family when they flee Brittany. However, to also give the family witchcraft to add to their potential for persecution may be insensitive when you consider the stereotypes it implies. Additionally, the witchcraft that the family practices is a historical inaccuracy. They “worship” a vague mother goddess that is clearly modeled off modern Wicca (a religion that is less than 100 years old, and does not have historical grounding). Much of the witchcraft is clearly rooted in Wiccan practices, which in and of itself is not a huge deal–lots of modern fantasy novels borrow from Wicca and neo-paganism for inspiration–but because it is written as historical fiction it gets a bit murky and could imply a belief that these modern practices have historical basis. They don’t.

When it comes to the Romani representation, I would be interested to hear about Morgan’s research, if sensitivity readers were involved, and how Romani readers feel about this book.

Final Thoughts

I think that the storytelling style of this novel is creative and well executed. The generations described really carry the story, and each character is distinct in her personality and decisions. The portrayal of witchcraft and Romani people are my only concerns, though I would really rather hear how Romani readers feel about the representation in this text than speculate myself. There’s a lot to recommend about this book otherwise, from the use of magic in the last section (which is arguably the most creative use of magic I’ve seen in a historical fantasy) to the way the pressure of legacy is written about. There were some genuinely tense moments, relationships I was invested in, and characters I definitely wanted to read more about.

By Catherine

I'm a lover of books, coffee, wine, and bees. Happy to join the ranks of book bloggers everywhere!

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