The Wise Woman by Philippa Gregory

Synopsis (from back of book):
Alys joins the nunnery to escape hardship and poverty but finds herself thrown back into the outside world when Henry VIII’s wreckers destroy her sanctuary. With nothing but her tools, her magic and her own instinctive cunning, Alys has to tread a perilous path between the faith of her childhood and her own female power. When she falls in love with Hugo, the feudal lord and another woman’s husband, she dips into witchcraft to defeat her rival and win her lover, only to find that magic makes a poor servant but a dominant master. Since heresy against the new church means the stake, and witchcraft the rope, Alys’s danger is mortal. A woman’s powers are no longer safe to use…

This is one book to which I looked forward immensely, having enjoyed The Other Boleyn Girl, The Queen’s Fool and The Virgin’s Lover very much, but I’m afraid that this novel was a bit of a disappointment by comparison. The premise was wonderful and I relished the thought of immersing myself in the world of the Cunning Woman in the time of Henry VIII, but what I got was something only partially rooted in reality, venturing more into the realms of pure fantasy rather than the historical fiction I’d expected. The life of a Wise Woman would have been interesting enough without all the fantastical additions tagged on here and there. I also felt that although the story progressed, there seemed to be no specific destination, and then, when I came to the last few pages, the end came crashing upon me all at once and left me unsatisfied as I wasn’t sure what point was being made.

It didn’t help that Alys wasn’t such an engaging character as the historical figures described in Gregory’s other novels, nor was she particularly likeable with all her manipulation and fickleness. Unfortunately, she wasn’t unpleasant enough to make her more interesting to me – if she’d particularly delighted in being twisted and cruel, rather than agonising over her actions, it would have made for a sizzling read.

All this is not to say that it wasn’t enjoyable – it was well-written, the persecution and paranoia of the age was atmospheric and evocative, and the more zealously passionate passages were a delight to read, if uncomfortable at times. I wouldn’t say it’s quite up to the standard of Gregory’s other work, but it’s still worth a look.

Reviewed by Kell Smurthwaite

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