Rachel Sneyd puts Nicholas Bowling’s debut Witchborn through it’s paces and takes a trip down memory lane …
In Elizabethan England, nobody is more feared or more hated than a witch. Alyce’s mother, Ellen, raised her in the craft, secretly teaching her about the power of herbs and potions, and showing her how to reach across to the Other Side and talk to the dead.
Their quiet life is ripped apart when two witch hunters arrive in their village. They burn Ellen at the stake and a traumatised Alcye flees to London, the merciless hunters hot on her trail. Armed only with a protective charm and a letter from Ellen written in a language that she can’t understand, Alcye must learn to survive on her own and, as she soon discovers, choose a side in the hidden witch war that’s being waged under the cover of England’s religious divide.
Once upon a time, the Celia Rees classic Witch Child was my favourite book. Given the familiar title and set-up, I had very high expectations for Witchborn. Luckily, it’s a triumph of a debut for Bowling, deftly weaving together adventure, horror, romance, and coming of age drama.
The world building is richly detailed, as Alcye’s adventures bring her from Bedlam asylum, to the city’s filthy, crowded backstreets, to a network of catacombs under the Tower of London itself. Historical figures like Walter Raleigh and Dr Dee are cleverly incorporated, and Bowling offers a hugely fun take on the rivalry between Queen Elizabeth and Mary Queen of Scots.
Alcye’s developing friendship with street smart actor Solomon is a highlight, as is the time she spends hiding amongst his theatre troupe, pretending to be a male stage hand. It might have been interesting to see her spend more time in this fascinating setting, or with the wily Italian apothecary whom she is briefly apprenticed to. Similarly the events after the climax of the novel happen very quickly, and I would have happily seen several scenes expanded to full chapters.
The ending leaves several tantalising story strands unresolved, and there’s huge scope to continue Alcye’s story in potential sequels.
Thrilling, moving, and occasionally very frightening, this is the perfect book to curl up with on a stormy winter evening.