Sixteen-year-old Elizabeth Grey doesn’t look dangerous. A tiny, blonde, wisp of a girl shouldn’t know how to poison a wizard and make it look like an accident. Or take out ten necromancers with a single sword and a bag of salt. Or kill a man using only her thumb. But things are not always as they appear. Elizabeth is one of the best witch hunters in Anglia and a member of the king’s elite guard, devoted to rooting out witchcraft and bringing those who practice it to justice. And in Anglia, the price of justice is high: death by burning.
When Elizabeth is accused of being a witch herself, she’s arrested and thrown in prison. The king declares her a traitor and her life is all but forfeit. With just hours before she’s to die at the stake, Elizabeth gets a visitor – Nicholas Perevil, the most powerful wizard in Anglia. He offers her a deal: he will free her from prison and save her from execution if she will track down the wizard who laid a deadly curse on him.
As Elizabeth uncovers the horrifying facts about Nicholas’s curse and the unwitting role she played in its creation, she is forced to redefine the differences between right and wrong, friends and enemies, love and hate… and life and death.
The first book in an incredible new series set in a fantastical medieval world.
Warning! This review contains a history rant.
Source: ARC from Hachette Children’s Books via NetGalley
I love a really well-developed alternative historical world, especially when there are elements of fantasy involved. Sadly, this isn’t one of them. I love history and 16th century England is one which I’ve studied a fair bit, so while I might not expect the dialogue to read like something straight out of a Shakespearean play, I do expect a few other things to make sense. Otherwise, why bother setting it in this world? If you’re going to change the important bits just stick it in another world. I am not here for your half-assed history.
For example, this is set in 1558, a time of immense upheaval in England. Catholic Queen Mary dies, Protestant Queen Elizabeth ascends the throne. Unlike later periods of history the social change of this century is largely driven by the monarchy. Personal beliefs turned into national conflict, not helped by the rapid changeover of the Tudor monarchs. So which monarch do we have in this book? Malcolm. That’s right, King Malcolm. We’ve ditched the charismatic, tyrannical Tudors for a long dead Scottish king (Malcolm III is the most legendary, but he died in the eleventh century. There was a IV, but that was in the twelfth). Even worse, Elizabeth I is pushed aside for a completely made-up male monarch and his evil uncle.
Why bother setting it in England then? Especially an England whose geography is very confused. Most of the action takes place in and around Upminster, which I’m assuming is London because it has Tyburn and the Fleet. But at one point Hadrian’s Wall is mentioned as being just outside the city, which puts us 300 miles north. There’s also a part where a walk alongside the River Severn is mention, which is around 120 miles west of London. So I have no idea where this is set, unless London is enormous!
And one last historical note: the song, All Through the Night, is actually a traditional Welsh folksong, Ar Hyd y Nos. The version used here seems to be a variation of the Henry Boulton version from 1882, which is not a direct translation. Either Elizabeth has a heritage that is never mentioned or she’s way ahead of her time. Which to be honest fits in with the dialogue, the behaviour and clothes. Maybe that’s a bit picky but details matter.
Or rather when the plot itself is dragging along and the main character herself is a bit dull, I tend to notice things I’d normally let slide. There’s so little to Elizabeth. The first half of the book is all about Caleb, Caleb, Caleb. In fact her entire life up to this point has revolved around Caleb. She moves to Upminster because of Caleb, she works in the palace because of Caleb, she becomes a witch hunter because of… You get the picture. She makes no independent decisions, she just follows him around like a lovesick puppy. The second half is all about John.
For such a strong, capable characters she’s annoyingly passive. Despite the circumstances of her arrest and the accusation of witchcraft, she never gets angry. She just accepts it. Even after her rescue she just goes along with it. She’s effectively been brainwashed to believe one thing, but she quickly changes her mind when someone suggests it. Yeah, all evidence points that way but she never made the connection herself. However, when someone else says it, suddenly she believes it all to be true!
There’s also a prophecy. I hate prophecies.
On the whole this book didn’t live up to my expectations. There’s no decent world-building, there’s a distinct lack of explanation for why magic is so bad (even before the plague), Elizabeth is a less than compelling heroine, the plot drags and I found it a struggle to get through at times. Once over the halfway point the pace does pick up and things do become more interesting, but to be honest by then I was just waiting for someone (preferably Elizabeth) to die in some dramatic way and end everything.
If you don’t care about history, have the patience to wade through lots of mooning over two not particularly interesting boys and don’t mind a heroine who just follows in more interesting people’s wake, then you might find something to enjoy here. There are plenty of other books set in this period along this type of theme that do it better, though.
Witch Hunter is Out Now!
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