This debut novel sees horror and magic enter a young girl’s life after her mother is accused of witchcraft.
In 15th-century Scotland, Bridget MacTigue is a widow who runs a small farm with her two daughters. Agnes is 3 years old and Bernadette is 12. One night, the sheriff of Moray visits, along with Janet MacTigue—Bridget’s kinswoman and friend, who recently suffered a miscarriage—and accuses her of witchery. The sheriff arrests and imprisons Bridget in a pit on High Street in the town of Forresgem. On Bridget’s instruction, Bernadette transfers their meager possessions to a nearby cave. But before she can bring Agnes, their cottage is raided and the child is taken by a “well-to-do man.” Bernadette then moves through town disguised as a short-haired, male ragamuffin. She listens at the pit where Bridget awaits execution and hears of the love triangle that developed between Janet, Father Dougal, and her mother. “Look forward and love yourself,” Bridget tells her daughter, shortly before her cruel demise. Later, with little will to live herself, Bernadette encounters a Slig Maith, “a dangerous and magical being.” The beautiful woman is a queen who offers to train Bernadette in the powers she already has, then get retribution on those who destroyed her family. The queen also describes the end of the Slig Maith if humanity’s rapacious expansion isn’t checked. In her series opener, Johnson builds an effective period piece enlivened by nuanced fantasy flourishes. Bridget’s relationship with Father Dougal is a heart-rending example of women treated like chattel. She says, “When I looked into his eyes, I could feel doors opening into other places and other people.” Bernadette eventually meets her own Broonie (or house elf), Murray, who teaches her reading and writing, and a mental and physical trainer named Liu Shen, who introduces her to the vital forces qi and energia. Scottish folklore and martial arts are an odd mix, but the author effectively combines them in a teen battling the controlling toxicity of the church. This installment focuses on the heroine’s revenge and its surprising outcome, successfully whetting reader appetites for a sequel with higher stakes.
A daring and thematically sure-footed Scottish tale.