By: Mary McMyne
Publisher: Orbit Books
“Everything you look at can become a fairy tale and you can get a story from everything you touch.” Hans Christian Andersen
What exactly is a “fairy tale”? According to the dictionary it is a “story (as for children) involving fantastic forces and beings (such as fairies, wizards, and goblins)”. They are beloved tales that have been told for generations. Very often the character that was the antagonist was an “evil” witch, wreaking havoc on the idyllic magical lands that were created. Mary McMyne, in her stunningly beautiful and imaginative debut novel, The Book of Gothel, she turns the tables on the fairy tale by telling it from the perspective of the witch. What we come away with is a truly remarkable fantasy that tells a story of love, loss, betrayal, romance, and, ultimately, happiness. From the first page I knew The Book of Gothel was going to be a different kind of fantasy. When I finished this absolute treasure of a book, I was still thinking about the characters, the story itself, and all the emotions I felt as I read it. I am glad I was correct. It was absolutely a different kind of fantasy. It was perfect and I highly recommend it.
I loved this book right from the start and I wanted to include how it opens. It begins with Professor Eisenberg, who is trying to get a tenured position at the University of North Carolina. As a woman in higher academia, I related very well, as I know the work my colleagues must do to get tenure, and this was such an accurate portrayal. In order to do so, she must have a published book or accepted manuscript. Her specialty in the treatment of women in medieval Germany was not getting her far in her attempts at any book deals. One fateful day changes her life when she gets an email from a woman in Germany, Frau Vogel, who attended one of Professor Eisenberg’s lectures in Germany. Frau Vogel has a medieval codex, dated to Middle High Germany, and asks if she would like to read it. So begins the story of how fairy tales are perceived.
I feel it is important to briefly understand the religious portion of this book. It is not disparaging, but it forms how many characters interact with each other. Catholicism is the dominant religion, which makes sense given the time period the book is set. The “old ways’ that are still practiced are pagan worship, and heretical in the eyes of the Church. Those who delve into these ways are feared as witches and sinful, bringing illnesses and deamons.
The manuscript is written and told by Haelwise, daughter-of-Hedda, a healer and a mid-wife, who practices the “old ways” and the worship of the mother. As the story unfolds in the words of Haelwise, the characters come to life. As I read the book and became so engrossed in it, I felt as if I were a part of their lives. It was as if I were there with Professor Eisenberg reading this tale with her. Hedda is teaching Haelwise to follow in her footsteps. When Haelwise writes of her mother, we are given a clear picture of a kind, beautiful, and knowledgeable woman who loves her daughter so very much. She knows the all the plants to make healing balms and tinctures, and she is the one who attends to all births, taking Haelwise along. The unique scent of her mother that Haelwise describes is palpable, and her gentle and wise ways are both loving and comforting.
Her father is the complete opposite and it is interesting that she doesn’t reveal his name, he is simply referred to as “Father”. She paints a picture of a man who is distant, pious, gruff, and doesn’t appear to want to interact with her or her mother. Father is a devout Catholic, and while her mother was baptized, she never gave up her worship of the mother. Since the manuscript is seen through the eyes of the main protagonist, Haelwise, her ideas of Catholicism are one that she fears, as the village fears her. In her village, suspicions of daemons and witches are all too common, and she is careful when she is there. She attends mass with her father, but she feels no connection. Haelwise clashes with her father, and when her mother passes away, he would often cleanse the house of her mother’s “sins” for her pagan ways. He marries soon after and leaves Haelwise to live with his new wife. He visits once a week to bring food, but the visits become less frequent.
When she describes this period in her life, she is despondent over her mother’s death and her father’s subsequent absence. However, Haelwise never invokes pity in the reader. We feel her grief and her pain, and the emptiness of her mother’s loss. Haelwise leaves to seek out the Tower of Gothel her mother told her about. It is deep in the woods, and the witch who is there needs an apprentice. She leaves behind Matthaus, her childhood friend, a friendship that blossomed into love between them. As fates would have it, he is promised to another, as a marriage with Haelwise would never be possible. As she describes how she loves him but knows it was not meant to be, we feel her strength and resolve, as her path is different from his. While afraid, she pushes forward to this new part of her journey.
Ms. McMyne wrote many characters in this book, and each are so different and exceptional. One worth noting is the witch in the Tower, Kunegunde. She knew Haelwise’s mother, and takes her on as an apprentice to teach her more of healing and the old ways. She was a morally gray character. While she did take care of Haelwise, she certainly did things, that we see through Haelwise, were unkind. Frederika, or Rika, is a runaway princess that Haelwise is sworn to protect. She hears voices from the mother to protect her, as she is pregnant and the father is a Jewish man from a settlement nearby. She fled from a marriage she refused to go through with. One of Haelwise’s attributes is that she doesn’t judge. On the contrary, she will help Rika be with her love. These were characters I cared about. As Haelwise tells her story of how they touched her life, they all evoke different emotions. There were many times I was tearing up as I read this story.
Haelwise’s character grows throughout the book. From the shy, fearful young girl, she blossoms into a strong woman who takes control of her life. There were times she felt that perhaps a religious life would suit her, but she ultimately knew it wasn’t. She was devoted to the mother, the old ways, and this was her calling. Haelwise never makes excuses for things she does. It is the story of her life, and she is honest in its telling. Rapunzel is in the story, but to mention how it came to be is delving into spoilers.
The pacing and prose were flawless. The entire book is told in the first-person narrative, including the parts with Professor Eisenberg. This was an excellent choice as we can feel her reaction when she finishes the story and talks to Frau Vogel. As Haelwise documents her life, Ms, McMyne’s writing is both captivating and eloquent. We are with Haelwise as she grows and becomes her own woman, apart from her mother and Kunegunde. Her life was rich and full, and though told in her own words, it is Ms. McMyne writing that is magical. It is hard to describe how just how amazing this book is, how Ms. McMyne’s imagination in re-telling a fairy tale is perfect, and how, when we truly look at something, what we once thought changes when we know the full story.
In her debut novel, The Book of Gothel, Mary McMyne writes a flawless re-telling of the story of Rapunzel, more specifically the life of the witch, Haelwise who took her to the Tower of Gothel. Told in the first-person narrative, Haelwise documents her life from childhood through her old age as she lived a full and rewarding life. The characters and story were so beautifully written. She recounts her gentle and kind mother, who practiced the old ways of worship of the mother, her father, a devout Catholic who looked at Haelwise and her mother as sinners, and Matthaus, who, despite their love, they can never be together. Haelwise, shunned by her village, leaves to apprentice as a witch, as her mother did. She grows beyond her apprenticeship and vows to protect those who need it, becoming a strong woman not defined by conventions. While there are religious overtones in this book, nothing is disrespectful. We are witnessing everything through Haelwise and the time period she lived in. We do see both sides of Catholicism and the pagan worship of the mother. Perhaps part of Haelwise’s story is trying to impart to the reader to understand what a person believes before judging, since it was superstition that drove her to flee her village. I was so taken by this story of love, loss, magic, betrayal, and happiness, it is one that I can return to time and again. Ms. McMyne’s prose was so beautiful, it ran me through a gamut of emotions. The Book of Gothel is truly a stunning book and I know not just fans of fantasy will love it. I think you will find it as enchanting as I did.
Summary (from NetGalley)
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…
You can find out more about Mary McMyne on her website at: https://marymcmyne.com/about/
My thanks to Orbit Books and NetGalley for providing me with an eBook.
Purchase The Book of Gothel on Amazon
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
My debut historical fantasy novel, The Book of Gothel, is forthcoming from Hachette Orbit/Redhook and Orbit UK in July 2022. My poems and stories have appeared in magazines like Gulf Coast, Redivider, Strange Horizons, Apex Magazine, and the Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion. My fairy tale poetry chapbook, Wolf Skin (2014), won the Elgin Chapbook Award. I have been lucky enough to win the Faulkner-Wisdom Prize for a Novel-in-Progress, an NEA Parent Fellowship to Vermont Studio Center, and a grant from the Sustainable Arts Foundation to research The Book of Gothel in Germany.
Originally from south Louisiana, I earned an MFA in fiction from New York University. I currently live in the Atlanta area with my spouse, our children, and a very handsome border collie. Our bookshelves are filled with histories, feminist retellings, Gothic novels, fairy tales, poetry collections, speculative literature of all sorts—sci-fi, horror, fantasy, you name it—and board games. I’m hopelessly obsessed with illuminated manuscripts and grimoires.Follow Me on Social Media