A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan
Published: May 2018
Genre: historical, fantasy
A sweeping historical saga that traces five generations of fiercely powerful mothers and daughters – witches whose magical inheritance is both a dangerous threat and an extraordinary gift.
Brittany, 1821. After Grand-mere Ursule gives her life to save her family, their magic seems to die with her.
Even so, the Orchieres fight to keep the old ways alive, practicing half-remembered spells and arcane rites in hopes of a revival. And when their youngest daughter comes of age, magic flows anew. The lineage continues, though new generations struggle not only to master their power, but also to keep it hidden.
But when World War II looms on the horizon, magic is needed more urgently than ever – not for simple potions or visions, but to change the entire course of history.
This book is covered in sand and stained with salt water from the Aegean Sea––it was the only book I managed to read on my trip to Greece, and I took it everywhere with me. It’s not only a history of witches, but a history of one of the best experiences of my life!
A Secret History of Witches is a unique historical fantasy that has multiple perspectives and narratives across different time periods, but it is not a parallel narrative story like most historical fantasy novels. Instead we watch five generations of witches across roughly 120 years, how magic played a role in their lives, and the consequences of the women’s use and interpretation of their magic. It was a little difficult giving this book a rating as two of the narratives I probably could’ve done without (but I understood their purpose and read through them anyway), but overall I was very impressed with everything about this story––the structure, the style, the distinctions between the women in their voices and narratives, the way outsiders saw the witches, the roles magic played with each generation’s wants and needs––that I left feeling fulfilled and enchanted.
Five very different women take the stage in this saga. This began as a very matriarchal, feminist narrative, with a close-knit family of Romani escaping Brittany and persecution for the safety of a permanent home in Cornwall. Nanette, our first narrator, is the last granddaughter of a great witch and recalls the persecution and her family’s flight. She is determined to continue the Orchiére line and finds guidance in magic. As the generations continue––through skeptical Ursule to vindictive Irene, sweet Morwen to determined Veronica––the life of the outsiders, the ones with no understanding of magic, a life of gender roles, a belief and desire for war, start to leak into the Orchiére women’s lives. With each generation magic becomes weaker and fades; with the rise of technology and steps toward integration into modern society each Romani woman takes, their feminist nature and matriarchal respect dies away.
I found this to be an incredibly interesting study. When we think of magic––or faith, for that matter––we see it as something archaic, ancient, to be set in history, to have no place in the modern world, especially in the blind reliance and belief in it. (Think of Harry Potter and how archaic the wizarding world seems in comparison to Harry’s Muggle life!) We also find feminism to be forward-thinking and progressive, and not at all something that existed in history (though we do find examples of powerful women, and men who treated women with respect/as equals). Push these two together: the power of magic and the power of women, both dying off thanks to the integration into the modern world. What does this say about us? What does this say about our society?
I’m probably reading too deeply into it, but I was genuinely fascinated with the themes and progression of the novel as each woman stated her piece in history. If you’re looking for something different in historical fantasy, pick up this book. This would also be a good novel for fans of Paula Brackston’s The Winter Witch, as well as the family aspects from Discovery of Witches.
This qualifies as book 8 of 16 in my TBR challenge.