Book Review: The Witches of Vardø

Anya Bergman ~ The Witches of Vardø

Synopsis

Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. When Zigri, desperate and grieving after the loss of her husband and son, embarks on an affair with the local merchant, it’s not long before she is sent to the fortress at Vardø, to be tried and condemned as a witch.

Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch ­- whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.

Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent to Vardø in disgrace. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court?

These Witches of Vardø are stronger than even the King of Denmark. In an age weighted against them they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.

Review

There are many stories and retellings about witches. Most of them struggle to show the true realities of witch trials, focusing on weak willed women who are at the mercy of men and do nothing but pathetically plead their innocence. Not this one.

The Witches of Vardø brings the Norwegian witch trials to life. Nothing is glossed over; everything is harsh and brutal. The treatment of the accused is laid out in stark detail, with vivid description that is tough to read, but necessary to show the cruelties many people faced at the hands of the witch hunters.

Bergman handles the subject matter thoughtfully, contrasting the brutal, bloodthirsty treatment of the women, with the dangerous beauty of the Arctic Circle. It is well-written and provides a good balance of fact and fiction, without losing the essence of Vardø’s bloody history.

The start is perhaps a little slow, as characters are introduced, but it soon picks up and becomes a gripping story. There are subtle references to real magic, but most of the strange happenings can be attributed to greed, lust and envy. Yet the women too are not entirely innocent, which provides this book with a balance lacking in many other witch trial reads.

None of the characters is particularly likeable; they are all flawed, and have all suffered in countless ways. Are they culpable? Undoubtedly. Is their behaviour justified? Probably.

Maren is a unique character who firmly believes in her craft and is not afraid to use the men’s fear to her advantage. The other women appreciate the danger they are in, yet still show a determined resilience until the end, despite the torture to which they are subjected. Unlike other books, these women are not victims, but warriors. Anna is an enigma; perhaps she thinks she is doing the right thing, but her actions are selfish and her surprise conclusion is extremely welcome.

Whilst the main story is interesting and shocking, it is the final few scenes that have really stuck with me. The ending is not happy by any means, but the sequence of events that plays out is satisfying, horrific and memorable.

It’s a book that will stay with me for a long time.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Manilla Press and the team at Bonnier Books for my proof and finished copy. Opinions my own.

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