#20BooksOfSummer is an annual event hosted by Cathy Brown of 746 Books and runs from 1st June until 1st September With the aim to clearing a target of 5, 10 or 20 books from your TBR but with very relaxed and fun rules.
Here is my joining post & List!
The Forest of Moon and Sword by Amy Raphael
It’s either me or publishing that seems to have a bit of a hankering for Scottish stories!! I’m not Scottish but I’m one of those people who seeks out, respects and enjoys the ‘regional’ tales and folklore of these islands and it seems recently so many of the books I’m enjoying are tales set within Scotland, or inspired by Scottish mythology.
I was drawn to this folklore dotted journey quest of Art, an accused witch’s daughter to save her mother from execution at the hands of England’s most notorious Witchfinder for well, I think that pretty much explains itself and then I discovered it begins in the borders of Scotland and I was like – aha!
Is it historical fiction? Or Historical fantasy? I would say that as a historical nerd with personal investment when it comes to this topic, it’s a great story but isn’t ‘History’ nor quite ‘Herstory’ so grown ups should take care to point out to enthusiastic young readers this is historically inspired fantasy rather than historical fiction with magical elements.
The Seventeenth Century Witch Craze or Witch Hunts was a European-wide phenomenon, that killed somewhere between 40,000-60,000 people at current estimates and has cast a shade across history, historical debate and still particularly affects discussions of gendercide, neopagan culture and feminist history today.
‘King James freed us from hundreds of witches and now that mantle has been taken over by’ Matthew Hopkins, the Witchfinder General
It was an Essex man, Matthew Hopkins with his self-titled moniker Witchfinder General who stands out in history as heading one of the most virulently aggressive and historically notorious witch hunts in England with even conservative estimates suggesting the women he sent to be executed in East Anglia accounting for 20% of the total witches executed nationwide in the over 200 year long English Witch Hunt era. Even more so his legacy continued elsewhere thanks to recording his methodology in The Discovery of Witches (1647) which became a handbook with his interrogation methods even used in the New England and Salem Witch Trials.
He has since become a sort of boogy-man for any English witch hunt setting and has been done so in many historical fiction books both adult and children’s, despite historically only hunting for a short time in South East England his legacy was such of blood and pain that his name is enough to evoke the kind of reaction you want in readers almost 4 centuries later. Whilst in truth the Scottish witch trials were far more violent, virulent and numerous than in England they were less the instigation of an individual and here, the journey quest of The Forest of Moon and Sword and the deviant characterisation of Hopkins makes a really exciting plot point to forget history and just take it as inspired. And that’s more than ok too.
However there are some interesting historical points that Amy Raphael explores which give us an insight into the causes and accelerants of the historical setting.
I don’t want to be here, I don’t want to meet people so desperate they are willing to send women to their deaths
Amy takes the historically accurate point that the Matthew Hopkins phenomenon took place during the English Civil War and that the resulting socio-political destabilisation may have been a contributory factor to Witch Hunts coupled with religious leaders tightening their local reins with hellfire and damnation as Protestantism splinters (especially in Scotland) with the rise of the Puritan and its own divides into sectarianism. Then there is the factor of hunger and how harvest yields were both affected by men sent off to war and the continuing effects of the ‘Little Ice Age’.
Everyday people were hungry, poor, scared and paranoid by pulpit lecturing of the evil secret deeds of women, leading fathers, brothers, husbands and sons to accuse the women in their life, and other women to rid themselves of rivals or enemies- of course any potential reward/finders fee may have helped too as Raphael touches upon as our heroine first encounters an English village and throughout the journey.
In Scotland particularly and to an extent England, misogyny has been shown to have had a causal factor and the ‘control’ of women along with historically held beliefs on female intelligence and morals had a part to play as Raphael then weaves in the factor that many of these women were just different or non-conformist; the research suggests unmarried or widowed aging women, childless menopausal women, maybe burdensomely old, maybe senile, maybe suffering from mental health issues, maybe neurodiverse and as Raphael explores often simply unable or unwilling to conform to the social matrix of pious obedience such as just ‘talks back’ and not quietly ‘good’! And famously and debated endlessly local herbalists or healers as Art’s mother is known for.
‘My mother… gave it to me,; it is the stone of the mother moon and protects you wherever you travel’
But as I’ve stated, this book is not historical fiction, it is historical set fantasy with a big splosh of feminism and as long as young readers take the history with a pinch of salt this is absolutely fine! Especially because Raphael lists her research reading in the acknowledgments encouraging interaction with the historical debate too.
The fantasy adventure unfolds as our young protagonist journeys South to the impending trials in Essex and she meets guardians, receives help from animal guides, maybe revealing in flashbacks that her mother maybe indeed what today would be deemed neopagan, but at that time if existing would have been seen as just as bad as the ludicrous male Puritan fantasies of cavorting with the devil and kissing his bum.
Remember. Remember Mother’s recipe book. herbs for sickness. Elderflower. There are no trees nearby. What else? Wild Spearmint!
The magical and herbalist elements of this story elevate and breathe colour and life to the thunderous trek down the counties of England, from the portents of foxes and owls to the visitations by various helpers.
Old Folk names for plants and their early modern usage from Culpeper’s adds a dreamy magic to the fear and self doubt we see from Art’s journey, and may inspire readers to explore the topic further. I know when I was Littlefae’s age I would be gathering plants from the garden and ‘playing’ this out!
Helping people to heal isn’t about magic, it’s about compassion.
Overall, if you’ve got this far well done, I had to rein myself in from geeking out further!
If TLDR well it’s a great fantasy adventure inspired by a historical context but shouldn’t be taken as historical fact; though this doesn’t distract from the book’s potential thinking points and encouraging a desire to learn more about the topic, which in itself more than makes up for the taking of historical liberties!
The journey quest is a wonderful one, with a fully developed internal journey as much as the physical one, and is ideal for readers aged 8 and up who love a bit of magic, a bit of history and a journey of the heart.
The Forest of Moon and Sword by Amy Raphael is published by Orion .