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Monday, August 1, 2022

The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne (Reviewed by Shazzie & Caitlin G.)

Order The Book Of Gothel over HERE

OFFICIAL AUTHOR INFORMATION: Mary McMyne's debut novel, THE BOOK OF GOTHEL, is forthcoming from Orbit/Redhook and Orbit UK in July 2022. She is also the author of the Elgin Award-winning fairytale poetry chapbook, WOLF SKIN. Originally from south Louisiana, she has a MFA in fiction from NYU. She lives with her family in the foothills of the Appalachian part of Georgia.


OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: 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 medieval 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 unlocks a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles behind the world Haelewise has always known…

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (SHAZZIE): Like most fantasy readers, I went into this book wary. We seem to have had a surge in retellings that talk of the often vilified characters in popular fairy tales and myths, and most of them have not been done to my personal satisfaction. I find that they whitewash the protagonist, or that they conjure up all kinds of characters, turning the tale into something almost unrecognizable. 

 The book reads as an autobiographical account of the life of Haelewise, daughter of Hedda, who tries to present her version of the events in Rapunzel's story. The narrator walks us through most of the significant events of her life that led to her keeping Rapunzel captive in the tower.

Mary McMyne has deftly woven a mythical narrative that definitely has a fairy-tale feel to it, without compromising on her examination of Haelewise's character, as well as provision of adequate critique on what life was like, in Medieval Germany. She uses the story to talk about the intersection of Christianity and Paganism, and using the lack of separation between the church and the state to help further the story, and give weight to her arguments about faith, and superstition.

Haelewise suffers fainting spells as a child, and hence is treated suspiciously by the village folk, and branded as a witch. This, combined with her lack of menstruation, causes her to be isolated from all of her age, except for Matthaus, the tailor's son. She grows up socially isolated, and is close to her mother, Hedda, who is the only loving parent she has. When her mother passes, a combination of different events force her to flee and seek protection from a wise woman she is guided towards.

The story that follows has almost every mythical element in there, and contains tales of kings, princes, betrayals, and so on, and even includes the page presence of the numinous Saint Hildegard. What the author never failed to do, is make the use of elements from other familiar fairy tales to me engaged, as well as provide consistent reasons to keep me invested in the protagonist's choices and journey, which is always influenced by her need to find a place to belong, as well as balance that need with doing what is right.

"A woman does not have to be pure to be good. Girls get angry. Mothers fight for their children."

Throughout this very feminist sequence of events, I came across different kinds of women - those who believed that they needed a man to provide for them, those that used the presence of a man in their lives as a veil, those who believed the world of men was dangerous, and those who worked alongside men to achieve their goals. They all had one thing in common - they refused to let the men push them around. I wanted to root for Haelewise when she decided not to live within the constraints that society imposed upon her, and kept moving in order to find love, belonging, motherhood, a family, and mostly, herself.

At the very heart of this story is the idea of worship and faith, and I find that the treatment of religion is extraordinary, and nothing that has been done before in stories set in the medieval period. Much of the story is influenced by a period of time when Christianity was taking over, but there is a pagan-like religion refusing to go extinct, and practiced by a community of women in secret. The author very finely puts across the idea of a religion in which a Father and a Mother that coexist, and compliment each other.

My only criticisms with the book are that the pacing was not completely consistent, and though some of the male characters seemed to have surprisingly forward thoughts for the time it is set in, they did not display nearly as much agency as many of the female characters with similar page time, and that it was quite jarring to have the story move unexpectedly to another timeline in a certain section of the book.

CONCLUSION (SHAZZIE): I really enjoyed this truly feminist book that is steeped in fairy tale and old magic. It certainly is impressive for a debut effort, and avoids all of the pitfalls I seem to have experienced with most retellings in the present market. It provides a fine balance in the treatment of religion and patriarchy, is written with a love for motherhood in any form, and employs a phenomenal narrative that might have you so invested in the protagonist, that you might not be keen on getting to the part we have all heard so much about. A definite recommendation from me, to fans of historical fiction, mythology, and retellings, that I wish I had the opportunity to read in my formative years.


OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS (CAITLIN): Haelwise has always been a bit of an outcast in her village, shunned for the strange color of her eyes and the fainting spells that strike her at random. All she wants is to marry the boy she loves and a simple life as a midwife, but when her mother dies, Haelwise finds herself increasingly alone and mistrusted. Fearing for her safety, she travels to the mysterious tower of Gothel, a place rumored to be hidden from the eyes of men and a haven for women. But even in the safety of Gothel, Haelwise finds herself drawn into the schemes of men, ones that threatens the lives of multiple women unless Haelwise can find a way to stop them.

The Book Of Gothel is a quiet (but never dull) historical fantasy of one woman’s journey to find her place in a world that wants to take her choices from her. It is a very loose retelling of the Rapunzel fable, though the less you think about that aspect, the better, as Rapunzel doesn’t enter the scene until the very end of the book. Instead, The Book Of Gothel is a coming of age story that follows Haelwise, a woman with magical gifts struggling to understand where they come from and how to use them.

The Book Of Gothel is a book that revels in what at one point is referred to as “domestic minutiae” of a medieval woman’s life. It’s not uncommon for medieval fantasy to be uninterested in the goings-on of its women characters, the ones who appear to live quietly in the background. Haelwise’s desires at the beginning of the book are simple. She wants to the marry the boy she loves and become a mother. She wants community (especially of other women), to feel like she belongs. As she discovers her own magic, she wants to understand who she is. These are every day desires that the world seems intent on keeping from her, and make up the main drive of Haelwise’s journey. But while her desires are simple, the world she is thrust into is not; her quest entangles her with increasingly powerful people, until an unassuming midwife holds the fate of a kingdom in her hands.

It is Haelwise’s drive for answers that make her such an engaging character. She is constantly torn between patience and skepticism in her search for truth. Haelwise understands that some things take time, but at a certain point, she also decides that nothing will happen unless she takes matters into her own hands. She’s a character constantly trying to follow the rules of others or society, but also willing to toss those rules out the window if they are working against her.

It is somewhat poignant, given events in the US right before the release of this book, that at every turn Haelwise seems to face those who want to take her choices from her. The people of her town don’t want her to live in peace (or sometimes, live at all). Her suitor’s father blocks her marriage. Others thwart Haelwise’s ability to use her gifts. The safest places in the world of this book are the ones that give women options. The Tower of Gothel is a haven where a woman receives all kinds of support, from aid during a difficult birth to the termination of a pregnancy. Haelwise becomes a fierce defender of a woman’s right to choose her own fate in any situation, and is at her most outraged when that choice is impinged upon.

CONCLUSION (CAITLIN): If you have any love for historical fantasy at all, The Book Of Gothel is an easy recommend. It’s a quiet story, but an engrossing one. It’s a fairy tale about fairy tales, intrigued by the stories we choose to tell and how we choose to tell them, but equally intrigued by the stories that don’t get told. The stakes might not be end of the world, but that doesn’t make them any less important. Haelwise seeks to control her own fate – what could be more important than that?



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