You’re just going about your daily business, healing people and whatnot, and then what happens? The plague. Suddenly everyone in town is accusing you of being a witch and clamouring for the witch-finder to hang you for consorting with Satan and dancing naked with demons and whatnot. Isn’t that always the way of things? Don’t you hate how people are just so close-minded, even in as enlightened an age as the 1620s? Just because someone might be a witch doesn’t mean she worships Satan! Witches can be good and pure and use their powers only to help and heal!
Except, in this case, witches do derive their powers from Satan (or at least, some of the darkest ones). That’s what finally sealed the deal for me with The Witch’s Daughter: though it’s not really a twist, I loved that Paula Brackston added that price to the character of Bess Hawksmith. She had magic, could perform small charms and help in small ways, without resorting to the dark arts. But to save herself, to become immortal and escape sharing her mother’s fate, she had to call upon demons and devils. This witch isn’t so innocent after all.
Brackston provides us with several snapshots of Bess’ nearly four hundred years of life. First we learn about her origins in the small town of Batchcombe, 1628. Next she’s Dr. Elisabeth Hawksmith, assisting with surgeries in 1888 and investigating brutal murders of prostitutes. Finally, she’s Elise Hawksmith, registered nurse dispatched to a small frontier hospital at Passchendaele. Bess doesn’t move around and “change” her name just to avoid raising suspicions, what with the whole not aging thing—she’s on the run from another immortal, a warlock named Gideon who taught her everything she knows. Bess’ mother made Bess promise to seek out Gideon and learn magic from him, because that would be the only way to ensure Bess’ safety. But Bess didn’t want to walk the dark path, and Gideon seems like an obsessed pyscho ex-boyfriend—one who can kill you, mind-rape you, and rape you. It’s called a Book of Shadows for a reason!
This actually a rather dark book, and I guess in retrospect that’s evident from the inside cover copy, but I didn’t envision it that way when I began reading. It’s billed as “part historical romance”, but there doesn’t seem to be any hero to our heroine. In her two subsequent flashbacks, Bess does fall for two other men, but that doesn’t work out. And I certainly wouldn’t call Gideon her one true love! So I will beg to differ with the book’s cover copy: The Witch’s Daughter isn’t much in the way of a romance, and that is probably a good thing.
This book does not open strongly so much as with a sombre attempt at something like mediocrity. Something about the epistolary style of the chapters set in the present day left me cold: there was nothing interesting about this Elizabeth character, and why the hell should I care if she’s taken a liking to a new girl, Tegan, and decided to teach her some witchcraft? I was beginning to regret taking a gamble on it from the New Books shelf at the library—but then Brackston began telling me about Bess’ first steps toward witchcraft in 1628, and I was hooked.
The Elizabeth of present day is a very unsatisfying character, but Bess Hawskmith is brilliant. A little bit naïve, but she grows from an innocent girl into a self-possessed, tragically bereaved woman. Her entire family, with the exception of her mother, dies in the plague. Then she loses her mother because of what we recognize to be short-sightedness, selfishness, and superstition among the townfolk. Then, in that lovely twist, Brackston makes us question whether it was really superstitious of them at all. Bess begins learning from Gideon but reneges on their relationship, beginning a centuries-long game of hide-and-seek. I just have one quibble: why was her name always some version of “Elizabeth” followed by the surname “Hawksmith”? Wouldn’t that be a little too obvious? She could have at least used some more creative aliases!
Between the flashbacks, Elizabeth’s relationship with Tegan develops—though at a distance, because we see this all from her diary. I wish Brackston had more thoroughly explained what makes Tegan so special, why Elizabeth is just now deciding to teach her craft to someone else. She doesn’t ever seem to worry that this might put Tegan in harm’s way, might make her a target for Gideon’s cruelty. This problem compounds as we approach the end of The Witch’s Daughter and the climactic confrontation between Elizabeth and Gideon. Firstly, Tegan, writing in Elizabeth’s diary, tells us all about it in hindsight. (To her credit, Brackston effects the change in voice very well.) Secondly, the climax happens way too fast, with very little justification for how it happens. After all the hardship Elizabeth has endured in her various identities, and after everything Gideon has put her through, I didn’t get enough closure. I don’t know how she feels. The ending, with Tegan’s optimistic evaluation of the situation, felt rather flippant compared to the earlier, darker moments of this book.
So The Witch’s Daughter is a little all over the map. It has these great, shining moments of insight into the nature of loss and suffering. Brackston’s perspective on witchcraft is, while not all that original, rather refreshing in tone. And parts of Elizabeth’s historical narrative were truly fascinating. Alas, all of this must be balanced against a story that starts off too sparse and eventually, somehow, beyond all my comprehension, becomes too compressed. This is one of the few times I wish a book had been longer. I wish Brackston had given us more exposition, more scenes between Elizabeth and Tegan, more snapshots of Elizabeth’s life. The Witch’s Daughter is a good book, and the flaws it has are the types of flaws to which good books all too often succumb.