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Monday, January 28, 2013

Review: The Winter Witch by Paula Brackston

The Winter Witch releases tomorrow! It's Paula Brackston's second magisterial book, and it's sure to get multiple raves, so I thought I'd get mine in a little bit early.

In this sensitively written novel, Morgana, a wild girl who went mute upon the disappearance of her gypsy father, must marry a man she hardly knows and learn to fit into the social fabric of his Welsh town. Cai, the man in question, must take a wife in order to become the porthmon, the leader of the yearly drove of cattle to London and the most powerful man in town. But we quickly find that, in spite of his continued love for his previous wife, who passed away in childbirth, Cai harbors a deep affection for Morgana that quickly turns to love.

The chapters alternate, beginning with Morgana's perspective in first person. This is a smart move on the author's part, because Morgana's silence makes observing her from the outside a little too enigmatic without these chapters of insight into why she does what she does. The other perspective is Cai's, in a limited omniscient third person. This way, the reader doesn't sympathize as closely with him as with Morgana, but still fully understands his thinking. I was skeptical about the approach, but Brackston pulls it off, and I now see that the romance would have been one-sided and disappointing without it. Because we now that their love is genuine, we can root for Cai and Morgana as the united front they present.

The story begins slowly, carefully inducting the reader into the unusual world of nineteenth-century Welsh cattle drovers (I know I'd never read about them before) and the beloved landscape the animals and people occupy together. It also plants the seeds that will grow into something of a mystery by the first quarter of the book, and by the middle, the reader knows that all is not what it seems in this town. Heart-wrenching tragedies begin to happen, and the pace picks up significantly during the cattle drove, in which Morgana is more helpful than any civilized wife would be, but also falls victim to witchcraft more powerful than her own and much more evil. The novel ends with a fast-paced epic battle between the two witches that hardly lets up until almost the last page. We can tell when Morgana is about to let her witchiness show because she isn't easily provoked. When she is, she prefaces her drastic actions with the delicious opinion of what her tormentors are doing to her: "It will not do. Really, it will not."

The Winter Witch is a thoroughly enjoyable romantic escapade. The historical context and characters are developed so well that when the fantasy elements appeared, I was convinced that that's the way it must really have happened. Highly recommended.