The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne is a compulsively readable historical fantasy inspired by the fairy tale of Rapunzel. Set in the Holy Roman Empire in the twelfth century, this tells the story of Haelwise, daughter of Hedda, and how she became the evil witch of stories manifold, taking baby Rapunzel from her mother and imprisoning her in the tower of Gothel. While a fantasy novel, The Book of Gothel is grounded in history, and contains recognisable characters, namely Emperor Frederick and Hildegard von Bingen. As someone who spent years studying the high medieval period, this made my heart sing, having a book rooted in the period and showing such care in regards to research – while clearly not a historical text, it captured the spirit of the era well.
I really enjoyed reading this story from the perspective of the villain – Haelwise is aware of her perceived role, and it is not wholly unjustified in all aspects. She is selfish at times, which makes a woman stand out in the society of the time, she is determined and ferociously stubborn. She has no qualms to lie when needed to protect those she cares about or to reach her own goals. But, this witch of Gothel is not evil. She is a complex figure, a complicated woman. She is doing her best, and that makes her interesting.
It is a story with a clear villain, but also many minor villains. Most characters are somewhere on the morally gray spectrum, and Mary McMyne does well in showing how personal aims drive their actions. I really enjoyed how the book went into tropes of storytelling, of perspective, of how tales change through the telling. History is famously written by the victors, but I’d like to propose a more nuanced take. History is written for a purpose, history is a tool wielded with surgical precision, whether by victors or those who have something to lose. This is true of chronicles as it is for stories within stories such as this one.
As a whole, I absolutely loved The Book of Gothel. It combines everything I tend to love about stories in a breathtaking manner and is very hard to put down. It is a feminist take on an old fairy tale trope, it is a historical fantasy and it has wonderfully murky morals. While there are romantic elements to the story, those are not at the forefront and Haelwise’s character development is centred. It is a book I highly recommend and I see myself coming back to again and again.