Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch, by Rivka Galchen

How we deal with adversity in life depends a lot on how we answer this question: why do bad things happen to good people? Some people are more comfortable with chaos and don’t believe in karma or divine action. Others look for a bigger reason than A causes B and shit happens. In the 1600s, in the Holy Roman Empire and a lot of other places in Europe, the bigger reason was witches. If something bad happened to you, your family, your business, or your livestock, it was because you’d had the misfortune of getting on the wrong side of a witch. The real bad luck, I think, is if you’re the one accused of being a witch, like the protagonist of Rivka Galchen’s Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch.

I didn’t know before I started this book that it was based on real history. In the 1610s and 1620s, the astronomer (and writer of proto science fiction, it turns out) Johannes Kepler had to take breaks from his position as Imperial Mathematician to the Holy Roman Emperor to defend his mother from charges of witchcraft. Katharina Kepler is the kind of woman who annoys people, even those who say they like her. She says whatever comes into her head. She insists on doing things her way. The fact that quite a few people in her town owe her money is also a mark against her. But everyone thinks that she might have been alright if she hadn’t filed for slander against the first people who officially accused her of being a witch and embarrassed the local aristocracy. From there, things get increasingly dire.

Galchen wrote in her afterword that she used translated court documents from Kepler’s trial, letters, and other contemporary sources to give structure to a narrative that moves between Katharina’s version of events and those of her neighbor Simon, who agrees to act as Katharina’s guardian (because women needed one in those days). Reading all these different accounts—the things the characters say and purposefully don’t say—makes for a very interesting story of betrayal, denunciation, lies, loyalty, and tangled legal proceedings. And I do love a book with unreliable narrators.

It was an interesting experience to read Everyone Knows Your Mother is a Witch shortly after reading A Demon-Haunted Land, by Monica Black, a nonfiction account of healers and witch accusations in Germany after World War II. Black’s book is full of citations to philosophers, psychologists, and thinkers who theorize about why people believe in witches. I felt more prepared for Galchen’s fictionalized version of Katharina Kepler’s story; I paid a lot more attention to the hidden motives of Katharina’s accusers. The first accusers were, I think, motivated by money that they owe Katharina. But then things start to take on a life of their own as more and more “witnesses” come forth to link a look or a bad word or a remedy from Katharina to something bad that later happened to them. Black’s book showed me the “logic” of witch accusations. Which is to say, because I knew more about how accusations of witchcraft come about, I was lot more afraid for Katharina than I might have been before I read A Demon-Haunted Land because I knew there would be no reasoning with the people pointing fingers at her.

Galchen writes in a very modern-sounding idiom. (There are a lot of people saying “okay” in this book.) The writing style, the use of historical research, and sense of time passing made for an absorbing reading experience. I got completely pulled into Katharina’s life and trials. This was historical fiction at its best.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.

Ex-Libris, by Ross King

480712Isaac Inchbold, the humble proprietor of Nonsuch books, is an unlikely hero for a novel that takes us into an international fight for possession of ancient and secret knowledge. Even at the beginning of Ross King’s Ex-Libris, Inchbold would have told you that nothing very interesting should have happened to him. But then a summons from a mysterious aristocratic Lady pulls him from his cozy shop and away from his pipe. Before long, Inchbold is dodging deadly men in black doublets, coughing his lungs out in shabbily organized archives, and following clues to try and find a previously unknown volume of the corpus Hermeticum.

There is far too much plot in Ex-Libris to try and sum up as briefly as I normally do. Suffice it to say, this novel has two narrators. Inchbold tells his story from years later, looking back at his bewildering and terrifying experiences in 1660. Emilia Molyneaux, a lady in waiting for Queen Elizabeth of Bohemia, takes us further back in history, to the winter of 1619-1620 when the Thirty Years’ War erupted. The lost book links the two narratives as they work their way towards each other in time. We learn how this missing book was originally found in Constantinople, brought to Prague, and was spirited away to a Dorsetshire mansion before it was probably stolen by Parliamentarian soldiers. What we don’t know is what happened to the book after it was stolen. The mere rumor that someone is looking for it reignites a contest to possess it between Inchbold’s employer and agents of Catholicism.

As Inchbold looks for his assigned MacGuffin manuscript and Emilia is chased across the Holy Roman Empire and part of England, the novel gives us a blend of fiction and history about Hermeticism, alchemy, the Counter-Reformation, diplomatic relations between England and France, Sir Walter Raleigh’s failed expedition up the Orinoco River, bookbinding and restoration, Rudolph II‘s book and esoterica collection, and much more. In the middle of all this history, the conflict over the missing book is a constant reminder that the fight to control information is not new. The Reformation, to grossly oversimplify it, was about the right to think for oneself rather than receiving carefully curated information from an established authority. Galileo and Copernicus‘ fight to publish and share their heretical (but correct) ideas about astronomy are a frequently cited example of how the Catholic Church fought to maintain its worldview against a scientific revolution and the Protestants, both “enemies” aided by the printing press.


A 1471 Latin edition of the Corpus Hermeticum, published by Marsilio Ficino, which is referenced frequently in Ex-Libris.
(Image via Wikicommons)

There are times in Ex-Libris where the plot is shoved to the back burner by King’s research. I’ll admit that there were some pages I skimmed because I couldn’t keep track of it all and didn’t see how it applied to Inchbold’s hunt. The best parts of this book are the nail-biting cliffhangers towards the end of the book, when our protagonists are almost captured by mysterious Catholic agents or when disasters threaten to destroy rare books. Being a librarian and confirmed bibliophile, I would be hard pressed to say which worried me more. That’s a lie. I was more worried about the books.

Readers who are looking for something more like The Da Vinci Code, with a quest for a MacGuffin that could change history forever, may chaff at the frequent detours into deep history. (The dialogue and gender politics are much better in Ex-Libris.) There are also some great twists near the end of the book that did a lot to make up for the slower passages. Readers who like historical fiction that can serve as a fairly accurate history tutorial may like Ex-Libris, especially if they’re interested in books and book history. This is definitely a book for bibliophiles. There’s more than enough to geek out about.