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Historical fiction beyond Anne Boleyn: Witches and witchcraft

Historical fiction covers a variety of subjects, not just the wives of Henry VII. Just in time for Halloween, here are six of our favorite historical novels about witches and witchcraft — and we’re not even counting the rumors about Anne Boleyn.

daughters of the witching hillDaughters of the Witching Hill
Mary Sharratt

Although she lives in an England that is now officially Protestant, Bess Southerns still clings to the old Catholic folk magic with which she grew up. Thanks to her visions, she has gained a reputation as a cunning woman who heals the sick and predicts the future. Bess is training her granddaughter Alizon in her ways, but when a peddler has a stroke after an argument with Alizon the women find themselves in trouble, victims of a witch-hunt fueled by a local magistrate eager to make a name for himself. Sharratt describes the 1612 Pendle witch-hunt with great historical accuracy, and with a particular eye to the confluence of folk religion and perceived witchcraft.

Shadow of NightShadow of Night
Deborah Harkness

Although the first book in Deborah Harkness’ All Souls Trilogy, A Discovery of Witches, is set firmly in the present, in Shadow of Night Diana and Matthew travel back to Elizabethan England to find a sufficiently talented witch to teach Diana how to unleash her powers. The pair quickly fall in with the infamous School of Night, made up of prominent Elizabethan figures such as Sir Walter Raleigh and Christopher Marlowe. Harkness’ vivid description of setting grounds the reader firmly in the past, although Diana spends as much time attempting to hide her magic and the fact that she does not fit in the past than flaunting her craft. Shadow of Night is notable in that it shows that Harkness can write historical fantasy just as well as contemporary.

the heretic's daughterThe Heretic’s Daughter
Kathleen Kent

Martha Carrier is a strong-willed and often sharp-tongued woman, a fact that frequently puts her at odds with her neighbors, as well as her daughter Sarah. When some of Salem’s young women begin denouncing people for witchcraft, Martha’s acerbic nature and lack of popularity makes her a natural target — and with her, her daughter Sarah. Suddenly Martha goes from Sarah’s greatest adversary to her only prospect of survival. As a 10th-generation descendant of Martha Carrier, Kathleen Kent tells a very personal story of the Salem Witch Trials and the way that witchcraft allegations often spread to those citizens who failed in one way or another to conform to social norms.

The Physick Book of Deliverance DaneThe Physick Book of Deliverance Dane
Katherine Howe

Unlike The Heretic’s Daughter, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane asks the question: What if at least some of the women condemned in the Salem Witch Trials were actually guilty? Connie is a doctoral student in colonial history, struggling to come up with a thesis topic. While working on her grandmother’s dilapidated old house, Connie receives unexpected inspiration when she finds a piece of paper bearing the name “Deliverance Dane,” which sends her on a quest for Deliverance’s physick book. As Connie learns more about Deliverance and the women who link the two of them, she begins to wonder if perhaps there is actually real witchcraft in her family’s past. Told in a series of flashbacks, The Physick Book of Deliverance Dane has a superb mix of reality and fantasy.

the hangman's daughterThe Hangman’s Daughter
Oliver Pötzsch

In 1659, a young boy pulled out of a Bavarian river had been severely beaten and left with a strange mark on his shoulder. When he dies, the townspeople immediately point to witchcraft and look quickly to Martha Stechlin. Martha is the town’s midwife, a job that often marks women for suspicion of witchcraft. In an interesting twist, it is the town’s hangman, Jakob Kuisl, who attempts to stop the townspeople from exacting the vigilante justice they desire. As the number of missing children mounts and rumors spread that the Devil himself walks the streets of their town, Kuisl must work with his daughter Magdalena and her suitor, the young physician Simon Fronwiser, to discover just what is going on.

born wickedBorn Wicked
Jessica Spotswood

“Our mother was a witch, too, but she hid it better,” begins Jessica Spotswood’s Born Wicked. Cate lives in alternate history repressive New England society in 1880. Cate must try to protect her two younger sisters, while at the same time hiding her true nature and agreeing to marry someone she does not love. An attempt to create a different life has Cate searching through banned books, making rebellious new friends, and beginning a forbidden romance. The addition of witchcraft to this alternative history is, in short, pure magic.

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