Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 280
The consummate ease with which the background of this unusual and powerful historical novel [The Thirteenth Member] is set masks the author's careful research into Scotland in the 1590s and the matter and manner of witchcraft. The characters are compelling. Adam, orphaned by a cruel law and now charity boy-of-all-work to Baillie Seton, is bitter towards the world until he unwillingly learns compassion for Gillie, the frail kitchen-maid who will never stand up for herself or resist circumstances. A born healer, Gillie was vowed as a baby by her mother to witchcraft, which she hates, yet is terrified of death if she betrays the coven.
The alchemist-recluse who has taught Adam book-learning is tortured also (perhaps a thought too melodramatically) by the burden of a terrible secret, but when witchcraft becomes allied to a plot to kill the king, he has to share his secret with these two innocents….
The pace, always fast, increases further when the scene moves to the palace at Edinburgh, the witch trials and the final chase. The study of James VI, shortly to become king of England, the unexpected shrewdness and authority behind the slovenly exterior, and his relationship with his treacherous cousin Francis Bothwell, is masterly. James's curiosity in witches is well shown, and the contrast between Court schemers, simple fools and the three really dedicated witches….
There is a matter-of-fact acceptance of the evil of witchcraft and horrors of torture which neither minimizes reality nor dwells unwholesomely on detail, but creates unforgettably the harsh, credulous atmosphere of the period.
"The Matter of Witchcraft," in The Times Literary Supplement (© Times Newspapers Ltd. (London) 1971; reproduced from The Times Literary Supplement by permission), No. 3640, December 3, 1971, p. 1509.
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