Audio and Book Review: A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan
I received a review copy from the publisher. This does not affect the contents of my review and all opinions are my own.
Mogsy’s Rating (Overall): 3 of 5 stars
Genre: Historical Fiction, Fantasy
Series: Stand Alone
Publisher: Audiobook: Hachette Audio; Hardcover: Redhook (September 5, 2017)
Length: Audiobook: 17 hrs and 32 mins; Hardcover: 496 pages
Audiobook Narrator: Polly Lee
A Secret History of Witches is one of those stories that span many generations, following a magical line of women through the ages starting from early 19th century Brittany up to the end of World War II. Told in five parts, the story first begins with the life of Nanette Orchiére, the youngest of six sisters. Descended from the Romani, her family has always been persecuted for their heritage but also for their women’s gift of magic, as seen in Nanette’s grandmother, the powerful witch Ursule Orchiére. For the sake of her clan, Ursule had sacrificed her life when Nanette was just a little girl. Now the family lives on a secluded farm along the Cornwall coast, keeping to themselves lest they draw the attention of the town’s leery priest.
Still, the sisters fear that the Orchiére gift will die with their generation—that is, until Nanette falls pregnant following a brief tryst with a traveling farrier. The birth of a baby girl, named Ursule after Nanette’s legendary grandmother, gives them all hope that their magical lineage will indeed survive. And so, we continue the story with the life of this Ursule, following her as she learns the secret ways of her inheritance, until she too meets a handsome stranger and conceives a daughter, Irène, passing on her powers. Self-centered and viciously ambitious, Irène disdains the farming life and so goes on to charm her way into a marriage with a nobleman, giving birth to Morwen. And Morwen, after escaping to London in order to get away from her horrible mother, ends up finding love for herself, giving birth to Veronica in the early 20th century. Following in the footsteps of the Orchiére women who came before her, Veronica must also find her own way to her magic and claim her birthright. But even though more than a century has passed since this story first started and Europe is on the cusp of the Second World War, she will encounter many of the same challenges and uncertainties that her ancestors faced, despite the changing times.
Whether you’ll like A Secret History of Witches is going to highly depend on how you feel about multi-generational novels. Do you prefer stories that focus on just one or a few characters the whole way through? If yes, then this one might be a struggle, for the people you’ll get to know and connect with at the beginning won’t be around by the end, and with each generation there are new faces to meet, new stories to learn. While certain themes will persist through all of the characters’ lives as their magical power is passed from mother to daughter, each Orchiére woman will also have their own dedicated section of the novel containing a self-contained plot arc with individual developments and conflicts. My guess is that fans of familial epics or sweeping historical sagas will eat this one right up, but those who are unused to this format might find it a bit jarring.
Myself, I don’t mind novels spanning multiple generations, but this one could have been stronger if it hadn’t been so repetitive. Each section reads pretty much the same way: the character first learns about her family’s magic, is skeptical before becoming convinced, and inevitably there will be a handsome stranger to come along to sweep her off her feet, fathering a daughter on her. More frustrating to me is that for all that the Orchiére women boast of their magic, they only ever seem to use it to snag a man or to get pregnant, which seems like a waste of their powers. The author is also very heavy handed with the message about oppressive men whose fear leads them to hate, a theme that was already firmly established by the time Nanette’s section was over, so it just became exasperating by the third time this same diatribe was repeated from mother to daughter.
Is it any wonder then that my favorite Orchiére characters ended up being Irène and Veronica? Irène was a despicable, selfish, manipulative, and shallow person as well as a terrible mother, but at least her story felt very different from the others and that alone was enough to make her section the most interesting. As for Veronica, she may have used the gift for the sake of her love interest, but at least she also put it to good use in aiding the war effort, and it fascinated me to see how witches working together were able to affect the outcome of certain battles.
Overall, A Secret History of Witches was a book that started out strong, but eventually, the cyclical nature of the women’s stories became its main weakness. In the end, only a couple of the characters stood out. That said, Louisa Morgan’s writing is solid, and I still think this novel would be good choice for readers who enjoy historical fiction with a light touch of fantasy, or for those who enjoy the drama of family sagas.
Audiobook Comments: Much like the story itself, I thought Polly Lee’s narration was decent but could have been better. Some of her accents were a bit iffy, and I’m very sure that’s not how you pronounce “Samhain”. Still, there was nothing deal breaking about the performance, though I can’t help but think the audiobook might have been more immersive had they gone with multiple narrators, one for each different Orchiére character.