I was attracted to this book because of the beautiful cover. I also love reading historical novels and fantasy, and had assumed this story would be something like Magic Lessons by Alice Hoffman (it's not; it's more folk horror than fantasy) but I still enjoyed the story!
Sarah's family live as outcasts in the ruins of an old village, abandoned since the plague. Her mother is suspected of being a witch, her brother as being a child of the devil - ironic, because it is Sarah who bears the mark signifying she has inherited her mother's skill. But Sarah doesn't want to be a witch. She has fallen in love with a boy from the village and dreams of being a famer's wife. Yet how can there ever be a future for them, with the arrival of a new magistrate determined to root out 'evil'?
Cunning Women is a much darker story than I usually like to read and in some places it is quite grim. The early 1600s was not a fun place to live if you were a woman without a man to protect you, and misogyny was rife. Sarah and her family live in complete poverty and, despite all attempts to earn a living in a honest way, suffer unfair setbacks at every turn. The themes of prejudice and persecution are very topical today; apparently we haven't learnt a thing in five hundred years.
I was concerned that Cunning Women might be yet another Pendle Witches retelling/re-imagining but it isn't. The historical details are meticulous and the setting atmospheric. I loved the idea of an abandoned plague village, 'haunted' by its former inhabitants, and Sarah's struggle with her identity - who she is versus who she wants to be. The story is very fast-paced and I found it hard to put down. My only complaint is that I'd have liked it to have been longer! Although we find out what happens to the protagonists, there were many threads left loose and several characters that I'd have liked to have seen come to a sticky end! (I was probably hoping for a 'Carrie' moment!)
Recommended to anyone who loves historical stories about real-life 'witches' and the persecutions they faced in 17th century Britain.
Cunning Women will be published in the UK on 22nd April 2021
Thank you to Elizabeth Lee and Windmill Books (Cornerstone/Random House) for my copy of this book, which I requested via NetGalley and reviewed voluntarily.