A Secret History of Witches

Written by Louisa Morgan
Review by Sarah Johnson

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. Of the six granddaughters of Ursule Orchière, a Romani woman who dies saving her clan from witch-hunters, only Nanette, the youngest, proves to have inherited her magic. In 1821, she and her sisters flee France for a farm in Cornwall, where they work the land and live in seclusion to avoid unwanted attention. The story tumbles down through the next hundred years, covering the journeys of Nanette’s daughter, also named Ursule, then Irène, Morwen, and finally Veronica as they come into their heritage in adolescence and carve out paths in a world that would shun them, or worse, if their secrets became known.

In the beginning, the historical backdrop is lightly sketched, while the male characters serve little purpose other than to act as vicious antagonists or, alternately, father the women’s children. As the story continues, the plotlines become stronger, likewise the romantic tension; the history also becomes more paramount. (Even so, the story involving Veronica’s wartime contributions is over the top.) Not all the women are sympathetic, which keeps things fresh and unpredictable.

Although most of the manifestations of their power, like spell-casting and scrying, aren’t unusual for fantasy fiction, Morgan incorporates some creative touches, such as their diverse animal familiars, and the grimoire written in a version of French so archaic it requires translation. Even more compelling than the magic are the five heroines’ differing reactions to their abilities and their relationships with those from earlier generations. 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.