Book Review – Bitter Magic

Bitter Magic, by Nancy Kilgore, is a historical fiction imagining of the witchcraft trial of Isobel Gowdie in Scotland in 1662. Thank you to NetGalley and Milford House Publishing for gifting me an advance reader copy in exchange for my honest review.

Synopsis: A chance encounter leads teenaged Margaret into the circle of Isobel Gowdie, a “cunning woman” who practices magic and travels in the fairy world. But Scotland is aflame with wars over religion and “correct” belief-English against Scots, Catholics against Protestants-and in the Scottish Highlands, the witch craze is at its height. When Margaret starts to meet with Isobel to learn magic, Isobel is accused of witchcraft, and Margaret becomes a suspect, too. Can Margaret’s tutor, Katharine, a Christian mystic, affect the outcome? Bitter Magic is inspired by the true story of the witchcraft trial of Isobel Gowdie in 1662.

Set in the mid 17th century, the author uses extant historical documents from the trial of Isobel Gowdie to create a believable, richly embellished portrait of Scotland on the eve of Charles II’s return to the throne of England following the years under Cromwell’s rule. The story is told in multiple voices include Isobel herself, but primarily focuses on Margaret, a young woman who is the eldest daughter of the local laird, and is also a sort of coming-of-age story for her. Other characters who are featured in the story are Katharine Collace, Margaret’s tutor, and the local minister, Harry Forbes. All four of these characters were real people, although much less is known about Margaret (not even her actual name) than the other three.

Tied into the history of the story is the fact that Margaret’s family, the Hays, and indeed the entire area in which they live were Covenanters. This was a religious group which came into favor in the 17th century, and was both a religious and political group who supported a Presbyterian church and renounced the papacy and the teachings of the Catholic Church. The Covenanters also supported a government run by their own church members. At the time of Isobel’s trial, the Age of Reason combined with the Scottish Reformation had many educated people (both men and woman) questioning traditional religious thought, and tending more towards the idea that religion and theology should be based on reason. Into this mix was the widespread belief system among the “common people” that there was a connection between the body, the earth and faith. Older pagan-based celebrations (such as Beltane or May Day and the ritual bonfire and dancing on May 1st, which appear as part of the story line) still prevailed, and many of the women who held onto these older rituals could find themselves accused of witchcraft, casting spells or making bargains with the Devil himself.

All of this political and religious change sets the stage for this story. Margaret, at 17, is on the cusp between childhood and adulthood. She becomes aware of Isobel Gowdie when the woman is called to help with a healing “spell” for another member of their community. She is fascinated by Isobel’s charms and chants, and seeks her out to find more about her powers. Isobel tells Margaret tales of seeing the fairies and of wild rides through the night where she goes to dance in the fairie rings beyond the eyes of mortal men. Margaret struggles between accepting the doctrines of her Covenenter faith and being enticed by the stories of faerie and the power that Isobel appears to have not only in her healing but also to call down retribution on community members who might have wronged her (and Isobel feels that the local minister, Harry Forbes, is one of those who has wronged her and other women in the community – based on some of the historical documentation, he probably had). Isobel is eventually charged with witchcraft and thrown into prison. She is tried by a council of church elders, including Margaret’s father, and winds up naming several other women in the community as witches who are part of her coven, including Margaret.

The character of Katharine Collace is harder to place into the story. She’s a less well-developed character for me and I wasn’t entirely sure of her place in the story the author is trying to tell. She’s sort of a moral touchstone, who understands why young Margaret would be fascinated by the stories of faerie Isobel tells and the power to be in charge of her own life, but who is a strong believer in the tenents of the Covenenters and a devout woman who hopes to help Margaret see that Isobel is a troubled woman who is struggling with visions and doubts about her own faith and place in society. (The character of Katharine is in some ways reflective of the author’s personal history of study into religious and mysticism.)

It’s obvious Kilgore has done a lot of research into what was, for me anyway, a lesser known time in Scottish history. She has lots of details about the countryside, the social structures of this very rural society, and the dichotomy between the ancient ways and the new thinking of the Age of Reason, even as it pertains to religious beliefs. I liked her approach to present the characters with their own individual chapters and points of view to advance the story forward. I do think most readers are going to have to head off to Wikipedia to do a little research before they understand the political and religious background of this book. I wish there had been a foreward of some kind (similar to the overview at the end of the book which answered a lot of questions for me) helping set the stage for the action to come. (As a personal note, I have 2 history degrees with research just following this period and still needed to Google the Covenenters.)

Isobel is a wonderful character and in reading the notes at the end of the book, I’m sure all of the trial transcripts that speak in Isobel’s voice helped bring her to life as the story was being written. Margaret is less of a win for me. At times, her dialogue and described behavior made her seem MUCH younger than she was, and I actually wondered if maybe this book was supposed to be young adult oriented rather than adult historical fiction (but there are also some sections I don’t think are necessarily appropriate for a YA audience that were taken from the trial depositions). The minister and Katharine Collace are more secondary characters, and seemed somewhat tepid. I would have liked to have learned more about Katharine as she seems like a very interesting figure for her time – well respected and well learned, with a good rational mind.

Overall I’m giving this one 3.5 stars – good writing, interesting main character, and wonderful descriptions of 17th century rural Scotland as the positives; some lackluster character building for the supporting characters and a bit confusing for casual “historical fiction” readers to understand the world the story lives in.

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