The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne
Publication Date: July 26th, 2022
Hardcover. 384 pages.
About The Book of Gothel:
"Everyone knows the tale of Rapunzel in her tower, but do you know the story of the witch who put her 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 medieval 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 unlocks a dark world of ancient spells and murderous nobles behind the world Haelewise has always known…"
The Book of Gothel came at me by surprise and just destroyed me in all the best ways. Everyone knows the general tale of Rapunzel, but I think it's quite rare to see such an original, well thought out, and enthralling retelling of the origin of the witch who started the story.
The story starts out with Haelewise's childhood in her medieval village with her midwife mother, Hedda, and father. Haelewise is unfortunately plagued by mysterious fainting spells that make her stand out to her village in unwanted ways, with people thinking she is cursed by a demon or affiliated with the "old ways." When Haelewise's mother dies and she is left on her own, she embarks on a journey to visit a place called Gothel where she hopes to escape her village and become an apprentice to the wise woman who lives there.
Haelewise is a beast of a character. She drove me absolutely crazy sometimes with some of her decisions, but I also felt a fierce love and protectiveness towards her because of her continual determination and steadfast refusal to listen to things she doesn't believe in. She is an incredibly stubborn character, and because of this she never gives up on her search for the truth and for something more in her life. It was very fulfilling to watch her growth and interactions with people around her evolve over the course of the story, shifting from a quieter, somewhat naive girl to a confident, clear-minded woman.
Kunnegunde was also a really intriguing character that I could never really figure out. She's kind and helpful, but also a bit dark and mysterious and I just felt like I never knew how she would react to something Haelewise said or did, which made her a character I couldn't help but find myself captivated by. I felt like her evolution over the course of the novel was a bit up and down and almost inconsistent at times, but I'm not sure if that's just part of her character or if that's more of a situation where readers are finally figuring out who she is. There were also a lot of other female characters in this book that had some strong, compelling storylines and roles, so that was a nice plus.
The religious aspects that intermixed with the magical components was not something I expected from a Rapunzel retelling, and I think McMyne incorporated it really well. However, I'll admit that I do still have some questions about the way the magic, religious components, and everything else worked together, as it was a little hazy at times. I'm not sure if this was more of a "me" problem or the story itself, but it is one of the only things that sort of prevented me from fully becoming enmeshed in the world.
I really enjoyed the world-building and think that McMyne chose a really unique setting to tell this story, one which I think fit really well with all of the characters and the specific story that she wanted to tell. Everything flowed together really well and I appreciated that McMyne really seems to have taken her time to develop the characters and the environments that they inhabit. There is also a small romantic component in this book as well, but it was not overwhelming and did not overtake the story in any way. I actually really liked this romance and found it very satisfying, and I also thought it fit into the rest of the narrative well.
The ending of this book, however, is what really killed me. I was a bit devastated, but at the same time there was a sort of persistent thread of hope that kept me reading and hoping for more. I won't give any spoilers, so I'll keep my thoughts vague. This was what I would call a tragically beautiful ending that sort of broke my heart in ways I didn't expect, but continued to surprise me the entire time. This whole book was really strong, but the last fifty pages are what really pushed this book up to something extra special for me. I feel like I'd love a novella-sized follow-up that highlights basically the last chapter of the story and expands upon everything to give us a better view.
And as much as I've just said how I've loved the ending, I'm going to be a little contradictory and say that I also wish it had been just a little less rushed and spent more time expanding and developing some of the latter events. The last hundred pages or so felt very rushed and like a lot of content was thrown in to get things moving, and although it definitely kept the pacing up and kept me engaged in the story, a lot of things happened really quickly without enough time spent on them. We spent so much time on Haelewise's childhood that once we get to the later events of this story, everything happens really quickly and we sort of speed through the last bit, it seems. I'm not mad at this story because I adored it so much, but I say all this just to convey that I would have loved to get even more from this ending.
Overall, The Book of Gothel is a stunning, heart-wrenching retelling of the origin of the witch from the classic Rapunzel story. It covers so many important messages around women's lives and their power that takes so many different forms, and it does so while telling the vivid, enchanting story of Haelewise as she finds her place in the world. I've given The Book of Gothel five stars!
*I received a copy of The Book of Gothel courtesy of the publisher in exchange for an honest review.*