The King’s Witch by Tracy Borman

In March of 1603, as she helps to nurse the dying Queen Elizabeth of England, Frances Gorges dreams of her parents’ country estate, where she has learned to use flowers and herbs to become a much-loved healer. She is happy to stay at home when King James of Scotland succeeds to the throne. His court may be shockingly decadent, but his intolerant Puritanism sees witchcraft in many of the old customs—punishable by death.

But when her ambitious uncle forcibly brings Frances to the royal palace, she is a ready target for the twisted scheming of the Privy Seal, Lord Cecil. As a dark campaign to destroy both King and Parliament gathers pace, culminating in the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, Frances is surrounded by danger, finding happiness only with the King’s precocious young daughter, and with Tom Wintour, the one courtier she feels she can trust. But is he all that he seems?

Thoughts

The King’s Witch is the first novel in the Frances Gorges Trilogy which tells the story of a young noble woman who is brought to the court of James I by her ambitious uncle who hopes to secure her an advantageous husband. However, the independent Frances has no real desire to marry and is angry at being torn away from the family home where she pursue her interested in botany. Famed for her use of medicinal herbs, Frances soon catches the attention of Queen Anne who awards her for saving the life of an attendant by appointing her to the household of the Princess Elizabeth.

Having formerly been part of the ordered court of Elizabeth I, Frances is appalled by the depravity at the heart of James’ court and she quickly realises she is in considerable danger due to James’ irrational fear of witchcraft. Frances soon finds herself under the scrutiny of Robert Cecil, 1st Earl of Salisbury, who is determined to please his king by rooting out any witches at court. Frances vows to curb her interest in medicine for the sake of caring for the young princess but she displaced in an awkward situation when a servant asks her to use her skills to save the life of an infant. Realising she is putting herself at risk, Frances attends the infant anyway but is arrested after the child dies.

Imprisoned in the Tower, Frances is tortured into confessing she is a witch but the intervention of the Queen secures her release and she returns to her position at court. However, Frances barely has time to settle before she is soon drawn into the Gunpowder Plot by Tom Wintour, a man she has fallen in love with, and feels betrayed when she learns he purposely targeted her as the conspirators intend to place Princess Elizabeth on the throne.

According to the afterword, Frances Gorges was a real woman of the period of whom little is known so she was an ideal candidate to be the heroine of this novel, however she is dull as dishwater and manages to get herself into stupid situations by making all the wrong decisions. The pace of the novel is extremely slow and I was tempted to give up on it more than once but persevered hoping it would pick up. The witchcraft story would have been compelling enough on its own but it is soon forgotten about when the Gunpowder Plot takes over. Frances seems to put the trauma of her torture ordeal behind her far too quickly once she is back at court and while she continues to loathe James I and Cecil, her time is soon taken up with other matters.

The Gunpowder Plot has been done to death so I wasn’t particularly pleased when it began to take over and the part Frances plays is tenuous at best. The romance with Tom is no grand passion as the couple spend hardly any time together so it is hard to believe Frances has grown to love him as deeply as she claims. When Frances learns of the plot she feels betrayed by Tom but her worries over what is about to happen are alleviated because her own father knows about it. As a supposedly strong independent woman, Frances is far too easily swayed by the men in her life and it starts to grate after a while.

Since Borman is an historian, you would expect the historical details to be accurate and the time period is crafted exceptionally well, although the palace descriptions did start to lean towards guided tours with even the smallest details being pointed out to the reader. I’m just not interested enough to read the rest of the trilogy.

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