Book Review: The Burnings by Naomi Kelsey
Buy The Burnings here
OFFICIAL AUTHOR BIO: Hi, I’m Naomi. I’m a hobbyist author and I’ve been writing for fun since I was about 10 years old. I couldn’t find many of the types of books I loved in the marketplace so I decided to write them myself!
I love mysteries, social satire, books about technology and society, non fiction, and fluffy beach reads about fashion and high society.
I am a voracious reader and love to read.
I hope you enjoy my books!
OFFICIAL BOOK BLURB: Nothing scares men like witchcraft . . .
1589. Scottish housemaid Geillis and Danish courtier Margareta lead opposite lives, but they both know one thing: when a man cries “witch”, no woman is safe.
Yet when the marriage of King James VI and Princess Anna of Denmark brings Geillis and Margareta together, everything they supposed about good, evil, men, and women, is cast in a strange and brilliant new light.
For the first time in history, could black magic – or rumours of it – be a very real tool for women’s political gain?
As the North Berwick witch trials whip Scotland – and her king – into a frenzy of paranoia, the clock is ticking. Can Margareta and Geillis keep each other safe? And once the burnings are over, in whose hands will power truly lie?
FORMAT/INFO: The Burnings was published by HarperNorth in the U.K. on June 8th, 2023 in paperback and ebook formats.
OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS: Based on James VI of Scotland’s the North Berwick with trials of the 16th century which are said to have influenced Shakespeare, this historical fiction novel is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.
Some historical context here: James VI of Scotland married princess Anne of Denmark, one of the characters in this novel. Due to snags in her journey, she was marooned on her way to Scotland, and he chose to travel and bring her to his court. This is the starting point of this story, and the characters that are given prominent page time are Anna’s lady-in-waiting Margareta, as well as a Scottish housemaid, Geillis.
This character-focused book is starts around the beginning of Scotland and Denmark’s alliance via the marriage and is written between the gaps in history to showcase, in a very raw manner, the circumstances and character choices that surround the trials. The author seamlessly brings together all these interactions to directly or indirectly show the king’s obsession with witching practices, as well as his paranoia that they tried to drown him in a convincing and believable manner, as well as introduces characters who become a part of the hundreds of deaths that occur during his attempt to rid his surroundings of them.
One of the highlights of this book for me would be that the author presents the circumstances of both the men and women caught in this crossfire in a very pitiful manner. Witchcraft trials are widely regarded to have affected and taken the lives of hundreds of women alone, but we know that’s not true, and this book showcases both genders caught up in these events, and the utter helplessness exhibited by the characters in ways that feel very real and relatable. At some point, a part of the trials written from a certain perspective made me flinch and shut the book. To say that I felt glad to have not lived through these centuries where any form of healing practices very looked upon with suspicion if they went sideways, or where marital alliances were a duty, and the legitimacy of a relationship of family line where established by the siring of heirs, would be a gross understatement.
This is one of those rare books that contains characters that made me feel various amounts of indifference. The three women who are given the maximum page time, Geillis, Margareta, and Agnes, are all ones that I could not relate to. I suspect that this is in part due to the writing style, which threw me off every couple of chapters, as it felt a bit rough around the edges. This was more than made up for by the sympathy I felt toward Anna, as well as the fascination that the treatment of James’ character, as well as his increasingly unhinged behaviour evoked.
While the narrative style in the first half of the book made it a bit of a slow read for me, the second half ramped up the political intrigue, as well as included recognisable, juicy tidbits of history that prompted me to read up large sections of history I was unfamiliar with.
CONCLUSION: Yes, this book took me a while to read, and a little longer to be able to draft a coherent review. The first half could’ve been polished, but rest of it quite does justice to what I found lacking. Full of political machinations and double crossings done well enough to leave you questioning your understanding of some characters’ alliances, it almost seamlessly mixes historical detail with character work to present the North Berwick trials in a personal and heartbreaking manner.