Bitter Magic: Inspired by the True Story of a Confessed Witch

Written by Nancy Hayes Kilgore
Review by J. Lynn Else

Based on the 1662 trial of Isobel Gowdie, Bitter Magic introduces us to Mister Harry, a Covenanter priest seeking to expel witches from the land. When the Laird’s daughter, Margaret, witnesses her friend kidnapped by raiders, and the English soldiers are unwilling to help, she turns to the village “cunning woman,” Isobel, whose skills as a seer uncover the raiders’ location. After her friend’s rescue, Margaret wants to learn Isobel’s magic. But when Isobel is accused of being a witch, Margaret’s beliefs in her newfound skills, along with her religion, are put to the test.

Life in 17th-century Scotland is well-penned, including its landscape, local beliefs, social dynamics, and songs and rhymes. The plot and characters are immersive and compelling. While most novelizations singularly highlight corrupted aspects of religion, Margaret’s tutor and fellow Covenanter, Katherine, is compassionate and advocates for forgiveness—opposing Harry’s viewpoint. The novel succeeds at contrasting differing interpretations of doctrine within the same religious branch, and how each aspect can influence the people around them.

Through Margaret, we are given a glimpse into the dangers of curiosity and innocence during this time period. Margaret watches as Isobel does dark things but brushes it aside and chooses to see only things that fit within her viewpoint. Through hardship, Margaret grows and discovers her own truths about faith and magic.

While Isobel Gowdie’s confessions are recreated in the novel, her fictionalized experiences don’t explain why she said the things she did. She accused others of being witches and described devious crimes—things that never happen in the novel. It wasn’t clear why she turned on her friends and made-up sensationalized stories. The characterization feels disjointed. Despite Isobel feeling like two different people at times, overall, this book is a fascinating blurring of the lines between superstition, reality, and belief.