Can you think of anything more wonderful than opening up your mailbox and finding books inside? Neither can I. So, as I said last week, I was thrilled to get a package with a number of books from the really nice folks at Simon & Schuster Canada this summer.
The first book from this package was Philippa Gregory’s The Wise Woman. This book was originally published following her Wideacre trilogy (which I haven’t personally read yet), and is her first novel set in Tudor England. As the publisher puts it, Gregory takes the reader "on a journey to the outer reaches of passion, where magic and
female power meet." Which is true.
The protagonist is a young woman named Alys who has entered a convent basically to find the girlhood she never had, but is quickly ousted when the local lord (Hugo) and his gang destroy the nunnery during Henry VIII’s destruction of England’s monasteries. Desperate, Alys returns to live with her stepmother Morach, the strange and nebulously dangerous local wise woman. Life with Morach is hard, cold and emotionally empty, and Alys constantly yearns for her old life in the convent and the Mother Superior she loved there. But she knows she can never go back – Mother Superior and all Alys’s sisters perished in the fire set by Hugo and his men. Even more, it can be dangerous for former nuns in Henry VIII’s England, so Alys must hide her true identity. Balancing on a knife-edge of peril, Alys must choose between loyalty to her vocation as a nun, and survival in the equally dangerous life Morach offers – as a wise woman.
Unexpectedly Alys is summoned to the
castle as the old lord’s scribe, where her life takes a 180 degree turn. After fighting his many advances, Alys eventually falls in love with the convent-burning Lord Hugo, who is inconveniently already married to Catherine. And this is where we enter the "outer reaches of passion, where magic and female power meet." Alys first enlists Morach and her magic to turn Hugo’s passion back to his wife Catherine, but then finds that her magic — at first so successful — has taken on a life of its own, and will pursue its own ends, regardless of her intentions.
I was initially skeptical about this book – it didn’t feature any of the famous characters we’ve all come to know and love through The Other Boleyn Girl and the many other great reads that she has written set in Tudor England. But Gregory does manage to deliver some of the magic we’ve come to expect from her other Tudor-era works, although I will freely admit that she at first strained the limits of my credulity with her use of magic in The Wise Woman, and then just went ahead and smashed through them altogether.
In the end, I did enjoy the book, although there were a few chapters towards the end that I’d rather she hadn’t written, truth be told. In hindsight, The Wise Woman is a bit reminiscent of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein in the sense that, like Frankenstein, Alys uses powers far beyond her ken to give life to creatures over whom she has no control, and with disastrous consequences. And Gregory is always a master of character: Alys is no pure protagonist, and Morach is never 100% villain. Even as the plot takes ever more unbelievable turns, the characters blossom and expose their deeper layers and their true humanity, which for me is entirely redeeming.
In short: I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend The Wise Woman, but don’t forget to bring your imagination along for the ride.
This review was written by Kath.