Last year, Philippa Gregory made her first foray into the YA world with Changeling, a historical paranormal that, in theory, should have been enormously entertaining—it is, after all, about a 15th century Dana Scully*—but that, in practice, was hugely snooze-inducing. In large part, the book missed its mark because the characters lacked any sort of spark or spunk, but it didn't help that the intrigue wasn't remotely intriguing, and the romance wasn’t particularly romantic.
Despite Kirkus’ tepid review of the sequel, I briefly considered giving it a try, purely because I was craving something along those lines. Happily, before I had a chance to pick it up, I discovered Victoria Lamb’s Witchstruck, which is set a century later, but still filled the bill perfectly: There are lots of sparky characters—it’s narrated by 15-year-old Meg Lytton, a young witch who’s a companion of young Elizabeth I during her incarceration at Woodstock—and has all of the intrigue and romance and action that Changeling lacked.
It’s flawed—there’s a decent amount of repetition in the dialogue and description, and I lost count of how many times Meg told me that Marcus Dent A) was a witchfinder, who B) wanted to marry her and C) how ironic the situation was, and Dent himself is so two-dimensionally awful that he may as well be wearing a Snidely Whiplash hat—but those issues are more than made up for by the book’s many, many strengths.
Real magic! Meg and her aunt aren’t just innocent herbalists mistaken for magic-users by superstitious townsfolk: They have real magical power. They’re able to cast spells, divine the future and control the actions of others. Meg, especially, is formidable, proud and sometimes scary.
Elizabeth! Sometimes she’s a jerk. She’s imperious, prone to slapping people and bossy. But that’s understandable considering her interminable situation—once a princess, now downgraded to the status of Lady; held prisoner by order of the Queen; suspected of treasonous activities; well-aware that one wrong word will result in her execution—and underneath all of the royal trappings and baggage, she’s a strong-willed, intelligent, charismatic, likable girl.
The rest of it! The romantic lead, a novice priest from Spain, is a tad too bossy for me, personally, but the heat between Alejandro and Meg is palpable, and he certainly gets points for being able to think in shades of gray—while her witchcraft is clearly an issue for him, he doesn’t condemn her for it, either. It’s fast-paced and exciting; there are multiple threads of intrigue; and impressively, Meg is given a few opportunities to make some CLASSIC HEROINE BLUNDERS, but she AVOIDS THEM ALL.
Overall, it’s juicy and frothy and FUN. And, best of all, it has me inspired to read more: While I wait for the sequel, I’m going to pick up Katherine Longshore’s Tarnish, as it’s about Elizabeth’s mother, Anne Boleyn.
And THEN, I’m going to revisit a book I thought of more than a few times while reading Witchstruck: The Perilous Gard, by Elizabeth Marie Pope. It’s set around the same time, and in a similar locale, but it deals with terrifically creepy fairies who have a penchant for human sacrifice. If you’ve never read it, you are missing out big-time: IT. IS. AWESOME.
*Well, the Scully character is a 17-year-old male, but his task is basically the same: to go out into the world, investigate unexplained phenomena and debunk it.
If she isn't writing Bookshelves of Doom or doing her librarian thing, Leila Roy might be making stuff for her Etsy shop while re-watching Veronica Mars, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Babylon 5, Black Books or Twin Peaks. Well, that or she’s hanging out on Twitter. Or both.