The Persecution of Strong Women
What a story from 700 years ago can tell us about 21st century shaming
It is six years since the release of Boyce’s award winning debut, The Herbalist. In a recent newspaper interview she claimed the first draft of Her Kind was completed in 2014. The time between was taken up with revision and the long time-scales of the traditional publishing process. As another reviewer has said, it was well worth the wait.
Boyce has taken real events from the fourteenth century and crafted from them a highly imaginative fantasy. In dong so, she has given us a version of those events that has a much greater ring of truth than the official versions. As she claims, those were written, not by the victims of a witch hunt, but by the men who instigated it. By telling the story from the points of view of the female participants, as well as the man whose tortured mind dreamed up the allegations, she has created a deeper truth. A truth that draws on the reality of medieval life in Ireland, the strained relationships between the different communities — French, Anglo-Norman, Flemish, Welsh and Gael.
As merchants, Anglo-Norman lords and the Catholic Church jostle for control of the city of Kilkennie, the idea that a wealthy moneylender has achieved her success by poisoning a succession of wealthy husbands gains traction among the Burghers.
Many of the dream sequences, which merge into the reality of interrogation under torture, reminded me of the controversial Ken Russell movie The Devils. I wondered if Boyce had seen that film. In a comment on a Facebook post she told me she had, and viewed it again whilst writing Her Kind. Russell’s film deals with another real event that took place three centuries later in France. Boyce has not gone as far as Russell in her depictions of depravity, although the charges that come from the lips of Bishop Roger Ledrede include descriptions of activities, conjured from his imagination, that echo scenes from the movie.
The early chapters of the book are full of hints about the past relationship between the three women at its core. I confess to having found that irritating at first, but I quickly recognized it as a clever device, since the whole edifice of the charges against the alleged witch is built on hints and intimations, distortions of the truth which become twisted in the fevered imagination of the Bishop.
That, of course, has resonance in the 21st century when we have become used to “fake news” and attempted character assassination based on innuendo.
Some may say that I am not qualified to make the following statement but I have no hesitation in describing this novel as a tour-de-force which deserves the most prestigious of literary awards. There is unlikely to be a better book published between now and Boyce’s next, however long that may take.
I have no hesitation in recommending this book to anyone interested in medieval history, sorcery, Game of Thrones, any other historical or dystopian fantasy — or just the pure joy of beautiful writing.
Note: An earlier version of this review also appears on Goodreads.