by Niamh Boyce
A woman seeks refuge for herself and her daughter in the household of a childhood friend.
The friend, Alice Kytler, gives her former companion a new name, Petronelle, a job as a servant, and warns her to hide their old connection.
Before long Petronelle comes to understand that in the city pride, greed and envy are as dangerous as the wolves that prowl the savage countryside. And she realizes that Alice’s household is no place of safety.
Once again, Petronelle decides to flee. But this time she confronts forces greater than she could ever have imagined and she finds herself fighting for more than her freedom …
Tense, moving and atmospheric, Her Kind is a vivid re-imagining of the events leading up to the Kilkenny Witch Trial.
I received a copy of Her Kind from Penguin Random House Ireland in exchange for an honest review.
If there’s one thing I love, it’s historical fiction that explores the history of witchcraft and witch trials. Her Kind introduced me to a medieval witch trial I’d somehow never heard of before, the Kilkenny Witch Trial, and I’m honestly quite mad at myself that I’d never come across it before.
Part of that, I think, is down to the way the history of witch trials are taught; because there was such a boom of witch trials across Europe and North America in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, we often overlook the fact that witch trials also occurred in the Middle Ages. What’s even more likely, though, is that I’ve never heard of the Kilkenny Witch Trial because my knowledge of Irish history is appalling, and this novel has once again reminded me that Irish, Scottish and Welsh history should be taught more in English schools.
But that’s a debate for another time.
In 1324, Dame Alice Kyteler became the first person condemned for witchcraft in Ireland. Her Kind offers a fictionalised account of the events leading up to the trial through the eyes of her servant, Petronelle, another real figure from history, and explores what happens when powerful women clash with the men of the church.
One of the things I loved most about Her Kind was Boyce’s treatment of Alice. She so easily could have fallen into the trap of writing a woman ‘ahead of her time’ (a term often used in historical fiction that gets on my nerves), but she doesn’t. Alice isn’t all that nice. At all. But she is a woman with a head for business in a world where she’s expected to be subservient to the men around her, and it was incredibly satisfying to watch her refusal to bow down to them even though life would probably be easier for her if she did.
The reason I didn’t love this novel as much as I hoped was this novel’s versions of Petronelle and her daughter, Basilia.
I love novels about witches and I also love novels about mothers and daughters, but while Her Kind is told from the alternating perspectives of Petronelle and Basilia I rarely felt like I was reading a book about a mother and her daughter. We as readers can see the heartbreak on the horizon, we’re forced to watch as Basilia idolises Alice and distances herself from her own mother who we know is trying to do everything she can to keep her daughter safe. The problem was there wasn’t quite enough of that push and pull between Alice, Basilia and Petronelle to satisfy me; in fact considering she’s sixteen years old, practically an adult as far as the 1300s are concerned, I couldn’t understand how Basilia was blind to the kind of person Alice truly was.
When Petronelle and Basilia first arrive on Alice’s doorstep at the beginning of the novel, Basilia doesn’t seem to have any interest in being there. She wants to go home. Then, mere pages later, she’s wondering why her mother didn’t take them there sooner. If Basilia had been younger I would have found her so much easier to believe, but at sixteen she was still fairly juvenile and I couldn’t believe her naivety.
Petronelle is a character I’ve seen before in novels like this, but she’s a likeable and sympathetic character, which is why women like her so often appear in stories such as this one. She had an interesting backstory that I would have liked to know more about – Boyce would sometimes drop little nuggets about her family history and then explore them no further, which was a little frustrating – and I especially wanted to know more about how she ended up living outside Kilkenny with her daughter in the years before she sought shelter from Alice.
It’s never entirely clear what Petronelle and Basilia were running from; this is a novel that could have benefited from Boyce using a few more pages to explore the history of medieval Ireland, although a part of me did enjoy just being dropped in this alien world and being asked to go along with it. On top of that, there’s also a history between Petronelle and Alice’s family, but none of it’s ever completely explained and I think the scenes between Alice and Petronelle would have been even more tense if we had known all that had gone on between them in their youth.
We do have some lovely moments of these three women, and two more of Alice’s servants, trying to navigate around each other and their roles in society. As women they’re all considered lesser than the men, but Alice’s higher status sets her above the other women and yet, without their support, she’d be completely alone. It’s a compelling scenario, but there wasn’t quite enough of it for me to get the story I wanted.
Essentially, Her Kind is a novel that I think could have been a five star read for me if it had been longer. Boyce’s writing is beautiful, and I’ll be keeping my eye out for what she releases next, but the story was a little too sparse here. For me to really feel the gut punch that the ending of this story wanted to be I needed to have more of an emotional connection to the characters, but I was never allowed close enough to our narrators to get to know them as well as I wanted to.