Title: The Witch’s Daughter
Author: Paula Brackston
Genre: Fiction, Historical Fiction, Fantasy?
In her lifetime, Elizabeth Hawksmith has gone by many names. She was Bess in 1628, when witch hunters claimed the life of her mother. She was Eliza in 1888, when Jack the Ripper roamed the streets of London. She was Elise in 1917, when World War I ripped the continent apart. But through all those lives, the common thread has always been Gideon Masters: the man who awakened her magical powers. Gideon is the reason she cannot die. Gideon is hunting her, slowly but relentlessly. Modern day Elizabeth has settled down in quiet Willow Cottage, befriending a local teenager named Tegan. But when Gideon looms once more, Elizabeth decides its time to put an end to the threat once and for all.
I bought The Witch’s Daughter at the same time I bought House of Echoes, while perusing the shelves of Barnes and Noble. I don’t often buy books from the Fiction section, preferring different genres, but I wanted to try some Historical Fiction and this offered a nice sampler. Elements of witchcraft and immortality offered me a fantasy hook. The first few pages were slow, but the lush description gave me an immersive experience. I decided to give the book a chance.
The Witch’s Daughter reads like four distinct stories, each set in a different time period: 1628, 1888, 1917, and present-day. Aside from Elizabeth and Gideon, none of the characters cross over. With each era, Paula Brackston begins the set-up anew: here is the setting, here is what Elizabeth is doing now, here are the supporting characters, where is Gideon? If you want a leisurely traverse through dramatic points in history, this structure works nicely. If you want plot and a quick pace, well, you’re out of luck.
I don’t mind when a book starts off slow. In fact, that was part of the reason I bought The Witch’s Daughter. I wanted to savor the descriptions, the craftsmanship. I did not want to rush from one plot point to the next. But at some point, I do expect the plot to kick in. Unfortunately, the only real plot the book has is that, sooner or later, Gideon is going to pop up and ruin Elizabeth’s life.
Gideon functions as an uneasy mix of villain and love interest. Normally this is a combination I’d eat up, but here the two roles cancel each other out. Gideon is too evil to be a love interest, but his infatuation with Elizabeth prevents him from being a threat. Despite his shortcomings, I found myself perversely rooting for Gideon. He is mysterious, he can be helpful, and there is something romantic about his unrequited love. It’s not that I wanted him to win. Rather, I wanted him to break free of his two-dimensional shackles and become a fully fleshed-out character. Paula Brackston tries, but Gideon never really comes together for me. He has glimmers of a soul--but mostly, he’s just evil.
Of the four stories, my personal favorite is the Bess/1628 section, when Elizabeth’s powers are first awakened. It starts off calm and peaceful, and rapidly descends into a hellscape. The drama is intense and nail-biting. Some of the issues hit on my own personal fears and sensitivities: mass sickness, hatred, mob violence, persecution of the innocent, and rape. The descriptions aren’t graphic, but they do create a vivid impression. Interestingly, this is the only section where Gideon is not the antagonist.
After 1628, I never felt the same sense of danger or consequence. Terrible things still happen, but they never seem to happen to her. In 1628, Elizabeth loses everything: her family, her community, her innocence, her understanding of the world. There isn’t anything left to lose, so the stakes are lower.
The weakest section, to me, is the modern day Elizabeth, which is written as diary entries, broken up by seasons, and woven throughout the book. Unlike the other eras, there is no dramatic background to spice things up, only a lot of details about Wiccanism and her friendship with Tegan. Unfortunately, I didn’t really like Tegan. I saw her as unreliable, rude, and bratty. The only reason Tegan seems interested in witchcraft is because it’s cool and she’s drawn to power. Elizabeth insists Tegan has a good heart, but I didn’t see it. And because I wasn’t invested in the relationship, I found the section slow and boring.
I have a few other nitpicks. The Witch’s Daughter has a surprising amount of magic, but, as a fantasy writer, I did not think it was incorporated into the world very well. It seemed like Paula Brackston did a ton of research of witchcraft and Wiccanism and made it all real without exploring how things like immortality, shape-shifting, or even persuasion charms would impact society. Nor did it dive deeply into questions of good, evil, power, and the afterlife. The end of The Witch’s Daughter fell flat for me. New characters are introduced at the last minute. Their addition contradicts earlier themes of loneliness and isolation and further undermines Tegan’s purpose in the story. Finally--and this is a minor detail, but it annoyed me--Elizabeth never once changes her name (even her last name) in four centuries. For an immortal being hiding from a warlock, this struck me as a stupid thing to do.
In sum, Paula Brackston’s strength lies in researching history (and witchcraft) and weaving the details into a cohesive narrative that lets you experience different lives. Sometimes, those lives can be wonderful, sometimes they can be horrible, but they always feel real. I’m less favorable on her ability to create a compelling plot and develop characters. The Witch’s Daughter has action and drama and romance, and sometimes these elements worked for me and sometimes they did not. Overall, The Witch’s Daughter left me with mixed feelings. It was not a terrible book, but it was not precisely my cup of tea.
Writer. Critic. Dreamer.