We know that all women are pretty much magical beings, but some fictional women have powers that go beyond being awesome, kicking ass in the face of sexism or even creating life. The three new novels in this week’s book club are all about women who bring a bit of that fantasy-grade magic to the world.
1. A Secret History of Witches by Louisa Morgan ($25): From the early 1800s to the Second World War, Morgan’s novel takes us through five generations of a family of witches. In 1821, Romani clan leader Ursule Orchiére is pursued by Father Bernard, a priest with a hatred of all things magical and female. The priest blames his mother’s death from breast cancer on witchcraft, and has resolved to burn all accused witches at the stake. He’s not alone in his dangerous obsession: “The Romani had always been targets, and were always wary. When the blood fever came upon the people, when they were overcome by lust for the smell of burning flesh and the dying screams of accused witches, there was neither law nor reason in the land.”
Hoping for a better future for her family, Ursule trades her own life for a hiding spell that leads her family to travel to England, escaping the angry mob. For the first time, they settle down in one place, and for the first time, they feel safe. This can only last so long. Years later, the youngest of Ursule’s six granddaughters, Nanette, finds herself with her grandmother’s scrying stone and clairvoyant powers but also her grandmother’s pursuers, including that same priest. Nanette’s daughter, also named Ursule, must follow in her footsteps; so must Ursule’s daughter Irène, then Irène’s daughter Morwen, then Veronica.
Each woman has her own chance at love and family but must face the same prejudices and dangers to her kind as her foremothers. Is each woman doomed to make the same mistake as the generations before her? A Secret History of Witches examines the bonds between mothers and daughters, and the power of hidden magic to quietly save the world, particularly as the world braces for another global war.
2. Norma by Sofi Oksanen, translated by Owen F. Witesman ($27): This 2015 novel from Oksanen, the award-winning Finnish-Estonian author of best-selling books Purge and When the Doves Disappeared, has finally been translated into English. Its protagonist, Norma Ross, has magical hair. Now, this isn’t Tangled or any version of the Rapunzel story, because Norma’s hair isn’t impossibly long. Instead, it has different magic: It makes her sensitive to scents and lies, and allows her to communicate with an ancestor (who had similar magical hair) from beyond the grave. It’s hypersensitive to changes in her own mood and the moods of those around her. Also, unlike Rapunzel’s hair, if you smoke it, it can act as a drug (one so powerful it might drive you insane).
This hair might come in handy because Norma needs to solve a mystery; jumping in front of a train, her mother Anita has died in what was ruled a suicide, but actually masks a much darker truth. This realization hits Norma hard because she’s already having a difficult time coping with life on her own, though she vows to become more self-reliant: “Norma would leave the farce behind to try to return to normal life and meet her mother’s death head-on. No more avoiding places that reminded Norma of her. No more being late to work. No more taking taxis instead of the metro, and no more bursting into tears each morning as she tore at her hair with a metal-toothed comb. She wouldn’t forget to eat or drink enough, and she wouldn’t let the life she and her mother had spent so much work building together fall apart… That was the kind of woman she intended to be.”
Before she died, Norma’s mother sold hair, but nobody knows where she sourced it. Confronted by a mysterious man named Max Lambert at her mother’s funeral, Norma discovers that the “business” he speaks of is a family-owned worldwide set of hair salons and a trade in human hair. It’s not that simple, though; Lambert hints at a nefarious side of the business, involving the global exploitation of women. Hair is only the beginning, prefacing the sale of bodies, and even children. Norma must learn to step out of her mother’s shadow and follow her own destiny… and her own hair.
3. Girls Made of Snow and Glass by Melissa Bashardoust ($19): “If they love you for anything, it will be your beauty.” Bashardoust’s debut novel is the feminist remix of the Snow White legend everyone needs. It’s more magical and more detailed than the original, humanizing both the beautiful daughter and her “wicked” stepmother with intricate backstories and a conflict more nuanced than age vs. beauty. The title isn’t just a metaphor: Lynet (our Snow White, but one with olive-brown skin) is literally formed from snow, as a sorcerer creates her exactly in her dead mother’s image. Mina (stepmom) has a reason for the coldness of her heart; her widowed father had it cut out and replaced with one of glass that doesn’t beat. Not only that, but the kingdom is under an eternal winter curse that makes the Game of Thrones universe look like a tropical destination.
Teenage Lynet looks up to her self-possessed and calculating young stepmother (there’s only a Gilmore Girls age difference between them). They’re more alike than they are different, and their relationship is close. However, things soon take a turn. Mina’s quest for the love of Lynet’s father, King Nicholas, and the power of his kingdom is stymied when the teenage Lynet is made queen of the southern territories. This throws the two into direct competition: unless, of course, they can change the story and work together, instead of tearing each other apart.
“There are worse things in the world to be than delicate,” Mina says. “If you’re delicate, it means no one has tried to break you.” Girls Made of Snow and Glass less-than-delicately makes the claim that the villain is not an evil stepmother, but rather a male-dominated society in which the only power a woman has is her youth and beauty. Feminism in your fairy tales? Sounds like magic.
What books fulfill your fairy-tale dreams? Tag us in your next magical read @BritandCo.
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