Leah’s ARC Review of “The Book of Gothel” by Mary McMyne

By: Leah

Originally posted on Leah’s Books.

The Book of Gothel

  • Author: Mary McMyne
  • Genre: Folklore/Fairytale
  • Publication Date: July 26, 2022
  • Publisher: Redhook

Thank you to Redhook and Orbit for sending me an ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5 out of 5.

CONTENT WARNING: mention of miscarriage, ableism, blood, death of a parent, grief, murder, attempted sexual assault, mention of torture

Plot Summary

Everyone knows the story of Rapunzel in the tower, but do you know the story of the witch who put here 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 people will kill to uncover…

In the vein of Wicked, Spinning Silver, and Hild, The Book of Gothel is a dark, lush, and beautiful historical reimagining of Rapunzel told from the witch’s perspective, a story of motherhood, magic, and the stories we pass down to our children.

Overall Impression

If you are a fan of fairy tales and folklore, this book IS IT. I love retellings, and truly enjoy those books that explore the backstory of the “villain” of the story, flipping the traditional tale upside down. In this book, McMyne has humanized the “evil witch,” giving her a well-developed history and exploring the way that a strong woman has historically been depicted in a negative way. 

Right from the start, Haelewise stole my heart. She’s a young girl suffering from an unnamed and misunderstood health condition causing extreme sensitivity to light and seizures, affecting her ability to function and leading to ostracism from others in her village. While her father is a devout Christian, her mother … isn’t. She’s a healer and a midwife, and while she superficially adheres to Christianity, she isn’t exactly a Christian. She does her own thing on the down low, and passes some of these practices along to Haelewise. 

But since this is a fairy tale, I already know how this is going to go. Her mother passes, and Haelewise is left on her own. Her grief threatens to consume her, and while she has enough skill as a midwife, her health condition sets her apart and people refuse to work with her. In addition, the people start to view her as “other,” and in the Middle Ages, we all know what that means, and it isn’t long before Haelewise is forced to flee her home.

But when she seeks out the safety and protection of a place her mother spoke of, a tower known as Gothel, she discovers that there’s so much more in store for her, even more than her mother told her about. And there’s dangerous secrets waiting as well, especially once Rika arrives. Rika has her own secrets, and they put Haelewise at risk, but Haelewise isn’t one to shy away from danger for her own safety. 

“‘A woman doesn’t have to be pure to be good. Girls get angry. Mothers fight for their children.’”

The story really places the Church and their quest to retain power and control at the forefront. While people still clung to their old religions and traditions, the Church viewed this as a threat and worked hard to stamp this out in order to maintain control over the masses, and viewed any deviation from their practices as a threat. 

“‘We have to worship in secret. The world of men is wicked, Haelewise. Full of royals and clergymen so afraid of losing power, they’ll execute anyone who stands up to them.’”

One of the things that caught me most off-guard was the inclusion of not just a Jewish character in the storyline, but also portraying a tiny bit of a Jewish community as essential to the story. Even better, they were portrayed not just accurately, but also not as the antagonists in the story. It was a pleasant surprise in a genre that has been especially heavily steeped in antisemitic tropes, where the villains are almost universally Jew-coded, and contributing to antisemitism across Europe. This was a beautiful deviation from the norm in fairy tales.

I absolutely loved every single moment of this story. From the first chapter, I couldn’t stop reading, and enjoyed watching Haelewise’s journey from young girl to old woman, bracketed by the discovery of her story by a scholar in the present day and her response to it. This story felt so real, and it’s the kind of book that will stay with me a long time. I’m so grateful to have received a copy, because it’s one that I’ll be rereading often.

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