Publisher: Thomas Dunne Books
Publishing Date: April 21
Genre: adult fiction, historical, fantasy
A year after her husband’s sudden death, ceramic artist Tilda Fordwells finally moves into the secluded Welsh cottage that was to be their new home. She hopes that the tranquil surroundings will help ease her grief, and lessen her disturbing visions of Mat’s death. Instead, the lake in the valley below her cottage seems to spark something dormant in her – a sensitivity, and a power of some sort. Animals are drawn to her, electricity shorts out when she’s near, and strangest of all, she sees a new vision; a boatful of ancient people approaching her across the water.
On this same lake in Celtic times lived Seren, a witch and shaman. She was respected but feared, kept separate from the community for her strange looks. When a vision came to her of the Prince amid a nest of vipers she warned of betrayal from one of his own. Prince Brynach both loved and revered her, but could not believe someone close to him wished him harm, even as the danger grew.
In her own time, Tilda’s grief begins to fade beside her newfound powers and a fresh love. When she explores the lake’s ancient magic and her own she discovers Seren, the woman in her vision of the boat. Their two lives strangely mirror each others, suggesting a strong connection between the women. As Tilda comes under threat from a dark power, one reminiscent of Seren’s prophecy, she must rely on Seren and ancient magic if death and disaster are not to shatter her life once more.
Tilda didn’t mean to become a recluse when she moved into the tiny Welsh cottage by the lake. But because she was supposed to share this time with her husband, who died a year ago in a car accident, she’s finding it hard to connect to the new home and people. She stumbles across an archeological dig while out on a run, and is drawn to it by more than simple fascination — she senses a dark power, and strange things begin to happen in her new surroundings. She sees a woman on a boat, a woman as pale and silvery as herself, a woman named Seren who was a shaman of the area around 920 AD, and Seren’s history is Tilda’s future.
I enjoyed The Winter Witch so much that I wanted to read anything else set in Wales that Brackston wrote. Though magical realism isn’t my thing, I thought I’d give this part-contemporary part-historical novel a try. It’s not what I expected, but I did enjoy it.
The historical storyline worked for me in some ways and not so much in others. What worked included the pre-Anglo-Saxon and Viking invasion, when Christianity was new and people still embraced aspects of the Old Ways. Magic is a part of life, and people sought shamans for visions, advice, and healing. Seren’s role in the royal court of this small Welsh area is an honorable one. I enjoyed the dynamics and her romantic storyline and her deep love of nature and the connection she had with the water horse in the lake. But aspects of what I just stated I enjoyed were also things that didn’t quite work for me. I liked the romantic storyline, but as a contemporary reader I had difficulty accepting her affair with the prince while he was married to the princess. I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the princess and think Seren a little selfish. The water horse was a bit prevalent in this, too, rather than an occasional sighting of a mythical creature. Hold back — the magical realism is showing.
The contemporary storyline began a bit slowly, and I was quite frustrated with Tilda at first. But she grows on the reader, aspects of her personality waking up and flourishing. It’s as if she’s waking up from her grief, so in the end I enjoyed her character growth immensely. The way she handles coming to terms with her newfangled magical power was amusing and awesome, as well. Her interest in the history of the area, and how she makes logical connections between now and then, was incredibly enjoyable. I loved her interactions with the archeologists, and her time with Dylan made me smile. But again, as her power grew, it stepped beyond what I was expected and entered into magical realism. I have so much difficulty with that.
Throughout this plot, we’re trying to figure out what happened to Seren, how she’s connected to Tilda, and what exactly is buried in the unearthed grave. The who, what, when, where, and whys of it all drive the story. I had so many guesses from the beginning, but all of them were completely wrong. But by the time it was revealed (about 80% into the book — great timing!), it all made complete sense and clicked into place. Of all the aspects of the story, it was this I was most interested in: connecting the past and present through this grave.
The Winter Witch was more earth-based magic (it’s all in the plants and winds and animals, no spells or incantations or brews or mythical creatures) with a very realistic historical storyline (a mute marries a drover). I wanted to know more about Seren than Tilda, or at least see this as two separate books rather than two narratives in one. The book was enjoyable, and perfect for someone with a higher tolerance for magical realism.
Thank you, NetGalley, for providing this book from Thomas Dunne Books for review!