In this fantasy historical novel, an apprentice wise woman in 16th-century Scotland learns her craft, experiences visions, and influences a London playwright.
Barring a brief framing narrative set in present-day Canada, this tale follows the fortunes of Wise Women in Mull, an island off the coast of Scotland, in the late 16th century. Gormal of Moy, an ancient wise woman, has a good relationship with John Mor, local chief. But his heir, Hector, remains suspicious and resentful, especially when young apprentice Anna predicts Hector’s daughter Ishbel “will have more power than you will ever know.” Ishbel eventually comes to Gormal for protection and teaching. After Gormal’s death, Anna becomes the new Doidag, gaining Ishbel and others as apprentices. They work magic to help their clan, such as warding off an attack from a Spanish galleon; regaining a changeling child; and fulfilling Gormal’s prophecy that Anna will draw a man of rare gifts from far away so that Ishbel can open his imagination “to the numinous beyond common thought.” This man (though nicknamed Hal, he’s obviously Shakespeare) agrees with a drunken, faery-influenced suggestion to practice a magic rite that involves torturing pet cats stolen from nearby farms. He’s assured he’ll win fame and fortune, but Ishbel still must bring him insight; she also encounters new dangers when Hector ascends the throne. The novel ends with several fates settled. Prentice (Meera’s Second Life, 2014, etc.) employs a lyrical, often rhapsodic style in creating her atmosphere, as when Gormal sits little Anna on a pony for a steep ride: “This casual act of understanding changed more than any spell of enchantment. It made the world new.” The witches’ focus on “connections” and “connectedness” is perhaps overly modern, but Prentice provides many intriguing examples of how wise women learn, gain visions, and practice magic. The Shakespeare story is something of an uneasy fit, partly because of the rite’s cruelty (it’s hard to wish Hal well after that) and partly because it detracts from wisdom and vision as woman-centered, otherwise such a strong theme in the plot.
Lyrical and cruel, this tale about Scottish witches, midsummer nights, and a magical island also becomes a Shakespearean origin story.