Author: Mary McMyne
Age Category: New Adult/Adult
Publisher: Redhook Books
Publish Date: July 26, 2022
Print Length: 384
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This dark, lush, and beautiful reimagining of the story of Rapunzel presents the witch’s perspective in this tale of motherhood, magic, and the stories we pass down to our children.
Everyone knows the tale of Rapunzel in her tower, but do you know the story of the witch who put her there?
Haelewise has always lived under the shadow of her mother, Hedda–a woman who will do anything to keep her daughter protected. For with her strange black eyes and even stranger fainting spells, Haelewise is shunned by her village, and her only solace lies in the stories her mother tells of child-stealing witches, of princes in wolf-skins, of an ancient tower cloaked in mist, where women will find shelter if they are brave enough to seek it.
Then, Hedda dies, and Haelewise is left unmoored. With nothing left for her in her village, she sets out to find the legendary tower her mother used to speak of–a place called Gothel, where Haelewise meets a wise woman willing to take her under her wing.
But Haelewise is not the only woman to seek refuge at Gothel. It’s also a haven for a girl named Rika, who carries with her a secret the Church strives to keep hidden. A secret that reveals a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles behind the world Haelewise has always known…
Told from her own perspective, The Book of Gothel is a lush, historical retelling filled with dark magic, crumbling towers, mysterious woods, and evil princes. This is the truth they never wanted you to know, as only a witch might tell it.
I received a free, digital, advanced reading copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley. My review is my own and reflects my honest opinion about this book.
THE BOOK OF GOTHEL is a superbly atmospheric retelling of Rapunzel from the maligned point of view of the witch in the tower of this classic fairy tale. Haelewise, daughter of the midwife Hedda, flees her village after her mother’s death. With nowhere to go, Haelewise seeks the fabled tower of Gothel, guided by a mysterious voice. Once there Haelewise realizes that magic is real, some tall tales are true, and not all princes are charming. But Haelewise’s hopes of apprenticeship to Kunegunde, the wise woman of Gothel, are dashed when tragedy falls. This sets events into motion that ultimately result in Haelewise known to history as the witch who stole Rapunzel.
This retelling undoubtedly tackles themes of overcoming the patriarchy, religious syncretism, the power of women, and motherhood. Given the 12th century Germany time period, it is unsurprising that the patriarchy is systemic in this tale. It is present in typical ways with respect to family dynamics; threatened sexual assault; religion; purity; and the perceived low value of a woman in terms of her opinions, wants, and marriage preferences. In other words, nothing new to see here.
I found the aspect of religious syncretism, or the blending of religious beliefs, very interesting. Although Christianity was already established in Germany during this time, elements of older beliefs break through. I’m not a scholar of pre-Christianity Germanic beliefs, so I likely missed some elements. (Or am wrong entirely?) But I found this theme evident in the stories told to children, icons hidden from sight, and herbalism. And, perhaps the most obvious, was the secret circle of women who keep this ancient knowledge alive.
This charge of secrecy bands women together to form a silent, cohesive unit that works against questionable decisions made by men. It also provides a sisterhood of sorts for these women. But the importance of women supporting women in a man’s world is broader than this clandestine sisterhood. It crosses into the realm of motherhood. This powerful topic explores a woman’s reluctance or desire to be a mother and how that transcends and affects all other choices. (Motherhood also ties in with the religious and patriarchal themes, but I can’t say much more without spoilers!)
Themes aside, I really enjoyed McMyne’s characterization of Haelewise. Many times I found myself empathetic to Haelewise’s situation. Her circumstances frustrated me on her behalf and left me heartbroken many times. However, I was also proud to see Haelewise become more confident in herself and her beliefs. McMyne delivers a bittersweet ending to Haelewise’s quest to protect the innocent that left me full of longing.
I feel that my review doesn’t do this book justice. But I really enjoyed it. And, surprisingly for me, my favorite aspect of it was the theme of motherhood. Overall, I heartily recommend this to fans of historical, moody fantasies. It’s also a great pick for those who appreciate headstrong female protagonists who work to overcome adversity created from societal expectations.
Content warnings: death, [attempted] sexual assault, blood, mention of torture, sex
Reading format: Kindle e-book