The Vanishing Witch

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The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland, book reviewSeptember 1380, Lincoln.

Set in a once prosperous city now in decline, with work becoming scarce and taxes rising to fund wars abroad, Karen Maitland’s novel The Vanishing Witch could be seen as something of a metaphor for our own times. Lincoln was once a mighty centre for the mightier English wool trade, but with the industry moving elsewhere, only a few merchants remain and numerous rivermen try to eke out a living transporting what shipments remain around the local waterways. England is in turmoil from the King’s ceaseless wars in France and Scotland, and he wants ever more from his subjects to pay for his armies and campaigns. As 1380 moves into 1381, tensions increase, tempers fray and the prospect of a long, hot summer brings about turmoil and the breakdown of social order. It is the London riots and Arab Springs made medieval, and things are about to undergo some serious changes.

Robert is managing to stay afloat as a cloth merchant, but finds his good standing and morals seriously challenged when a charming widow named Catlin arrives in town and seeks out his investment advice. He is flattered; Catlin is everything that his dull wife Edith is not, and when Edith shows signs of serious illness, who better to nurse her in her dying days? Indeed, who better to become his second wife and replacement mother to his son and heir when the time comes? Rumours about Catlin reach the household, but Robert is too wrapped up in his attraction to pay them any heed. Across town, we meet an entirely different character in Gunter, a poor riverman competing for dwindling trade to keep himself and his family fed. But Robert, his landlord, is putting up rents and the tax collector wants more money than last year, more than Gunter can possibly expect to raise. Stories reach Gunter’s village about other tax collectors who have been attacked when trying to enforce the new poll taxes, and how the men of Essex have risen up in revolt against them. What might happen if the rebellion spreads as far as Lincoln?

Set against the backdrop of the Peasants’ Revolt, Maitland’s novel takes us on a tour of the medieval world from a variety of different perspectives – adult and child, master and servant, rich and poor, man and woman. Each is an ordinary person made extraordinary by events, with Lincoln itself being a character within the story. With a thread of witchcraft weaving through the novel, there is a nugget of folklore or popular belief heading each chapter, helping set the scene in a world where the belief in such supernatural acts was as natural as going to sleep each night. Maitland has written other books set in this period and runs a website of medieval miscellany (, and this book amply shows off her knowledge of the period and what it may have looked like from a range of perspectives. There is even a bumper collection of historical notes and a glossary of terms provided as an appendix to the novel.

But while I loved the historical richness of this book, I’m afraid that at over 650 pages in length it was too much of a slow burner for me. It takes until the halfway point for the plot to really get going, and that is too much for a book of this size; a little more pace and action and a little less scene setting earlier on would have done it a lot of favours. The Vanishing Witch is a novel that will reward the reader prepared to stay with it over a marathon, but I think a 10k course would have served the plot a little better.

Recommended for patient readers!

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland
Published by Headline, August 2014
With thanks to the publishers for providing me with this review copy.

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Vanishing Witch, The
by Karen Maitland

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Written by collingwood21