Double Review - The Book of Secrets by Anna Mazzola and The Shadow Key by Susan Stokes-Chapman

My reviews of two gothic historical novels featuring mysterious books.

The Book of Secrets

Anna Mazzola’s latest historical novel is a tense and compelling tale of women fighting back against violence and oppression, from both the men close to them and society as a whole. Inspired by real events, the book tells the story of a witch-hunt in 17th century Rome from the point of view of some of the women caught up in it, and one of the men driving it.

Like Katie Lumsden in The Trouble with Mrs Montgomery Hurst, Anna Mazzola paints a realistic picture of the circumstances in which the female characters in her story find themselves. It’s a feminist book in the most grounded and unflinching way, standing witness to the persecution of women and giving them a voice, but without imbuing them with the kind of unrealistic power they could never have wielded in reality. The power of the female characters in this book comes from the choices they make, to fight back, to take whatever chances they are given, to help and be helped by other women. The titular book of secrets feels like a metaphor for the hidden knowledge of women, and the relationships between them.

It’s a masterfully woven story that draws you in and won’t let you go.

The Shadow Key

Susan Stokes-Chapman’s second novel takes place a little over a century after the events referenced in The Book of Secrets, and a thousand miles away from Rome. It’s set in the depths of Wales, where a young English doctor reluctantly takes up a post, following a fall from grace. There, he encounters Linette, the young mistress of Plan Helyg. Linette is struggling with the narrow role she is supposed to play in society, although in less dangerous circumstances than those of the women in The Book of Secrets. Together, she and Henry unravel the mystery surrounding a strange book, and uncover the dark secret behind the disappearance of Henry’s predecessor. The author has an extensive knowledge of Welsh mythology and skilfully weaves it into the story. As in The Book of Secrets, there is a collision of science and superstition, belief and rationality, something which is a recurring theme in gothic fiction.

It’s a layered and lyrical second novel that deserves all the accolades its received.