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Book Description:

This dark, lush, and beautiful reimagining of the story of Rapunzel presents the witch’s perspective in this tale of motherhood, magic, and the stories we pass down to our children.

“Smart, swift, sure-footed and fleet-winged, The Book of Gothel launches its magic from a most reliable source: the troubled heart. Mary McMyne is a magician.”—Gregory Maguire, NYT bestselling author of Wicked

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 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 reveals a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles behind the world Haelewise has always known…

Told from her own perspective, The Book of Gothel is a lush, historical retelling filled with dark magic, crumbling towers, mysterious woods, and evil princes. This is the truth they never wanted you to know, as only a witch might tell it.

The Book of Gothel, Mary McMyne’s debut novel, is the story of the woman who came to be known as Mother Gothel, the witch infamous for imprisoning Rapunzel. The bulk of the book is an account of her early life in twelfth-century Germany and the events that led to Rapunzel growing up in the tower, as recorded by Haelewise—the witch herself—as an elderly woman. It has little to do with Rapunzel given that the main plot ends shortly after her birth, and there are just a few pages covering some of the highlights of what happened afterward. This is very much Haelewise’s tale, a story that explores mothers and daughters, the treatment of women—especially those who don’t fit into traditional roles—in this historical setting, and the clash between the older ways and Christianity.

Starting with her childhood, the novel details how Haelewise was feared by nearly everyone in her village. With her black eyes, fainting spells, and ability to feel a new soul being pulled into the world when assisting her mother with midwifery, she was loved and accepted by very few people growing up: mainly her mother, one of her mother’s friends, and the latter’s son. When she’s in her late teens, her mother becomes ill and eventually passes, and Haelewise’s small support system dies shortly thereafter. Her father abandons her to marry a woman who will not abide having someone with such un-Christian qualities in her home, and her childhood-friend-turned-love interest is unable to convince his own father to let him wed her and is forced into a marriage he doesn’t want instead. Without being able to practice a trade of her own, Haelewise faces poverty after she sells the last of her mother’s handiwork (in disguise, of course, since no one would buy from her). But the few pieces of the old ways that her mother managed to pass down to her—in spite of her marriage to a Christian man who did not want her speaking of them—lead Haelewise to seek the wise woman in the tower and the other women who still adhere to these antiquated practices.

I loved the idea of telling the story of an herbalist and healer that almost seems like it could have been the origin of a folktale but for a touch of supernatural abilities, as well as its exploration of the lives of women and the ways they supported each other. However, The Book of Gothel is a novel I found more interesting in concept than execution. In part, this is due to my personal preference for complicated retellings that make me see the seeds of the fairy tale or folktale in a new light, and this tale of how Rapunzel came to be in the tower is very different from the Grimm version. Though a few of those seeds are there, some of the familiar details I was hoping to see addressed were not actually present in Haelewise’s story but had to have been added by the storytellers who spread the tale, morphing it into something new as it was retold throughout the years. Furthermore, although Haelewise is imperfect and makes mistakes, she doesn’t seem like someone likely to descend into villainy or a person with shades of gray—or more importantly, a complex character who makes difficult or interesting choices over the course of her journey.

Since this tale is intended to set the record straight after the protagonist’s life story was twisted to vilify her, that probably wouldn’t have mattered to me much if I’d just found the writing, characters and relationships, or the plot more compelling. I prefer books that go into depth in some way, and this one teased a lot of intriguing bits without diving below their surfaces. For the first half, I was interested in Haelewise’s life and predicaments; I wanted to learn more about her mother’s past and the old ways with her. But I ended up finding the rest of her journey unsatisfying as she went from place to place without the novel taking time to delve into the parts I most wanted to know more about, and the only memorable bond Haelewise had was the one with her mother that was so central to the novel. (The most major relationship after that is the one with her bland love interest, and although there was a mentorship and friendship that both had potential to be engaging, neither was developed much.)

The Book of Gothel is not at all what I consider to be a bad book, but I found myself underwhelmed by the time I finished it, especially considering that there were parts that had piqued my interest in the first half. This novel had potential, but in the end, it was just okay for this particular reader.

My Rating: 5/10

Where I got my reading copy: ARC from the publisher.

Read Mary McMyne’s Essay on Feminist Retellings and The Book of Gothel