Norway, 1662. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. When Zigri, desperate and grieving after the loss of her husband and son, embarks on an affair with the local merchant, it’s not long before she is sent to the fortress at Vardo, to be tried and condemned as a witch.
Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg sets off into the wilderness to try to bring her mother back home. Accompanying her on this quest is Maren – herself the daughter of a witch ¬- whose wild nature and unconquerable spirit gives Ingeborg the courage to venture into the unknown, and to risk all she has to save her family.
Also captive in the fortress is Anna Rhodius, once the King of Denmark’s mistress, who has been sent to Vardo in disgrace. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court?
These Witches of Vardo are stronger than even the King of Denmark. In an age weighted against them they refuse to be victims. They will have their justice. All they need do is show their power.
Anya Bergman’s debut novel The Witches of Vardo is a retelling of the seventeenth century Norwegian witch trials, an evocative story of women rendered voiceless and powerless amidst a time of great suspicion and accusation.
In one narrative we meet Ingeborg, daughter of an accused witch who teams up with another young woman – Maren – to save her mother from imminent death. Interspersed throughout the book is a third perspective. Anna, disgraced and now living in Vardo. Eventually, her path crosses with Ingeborg and Maren. These three women refuse to succumb to the expectations placed upon them, and work to rebel against the witch-hunting, religious fanatics that surround them.
“This was the change in Ingeborg’s mother. She no longer cared what any soul thought of her. What did it matter now her boy was gone and her husband lost? But this change was more dangerous than her mother could ever imagine, more than Ingeborg had an inkling of.”
The Witches of Vardo is a feisty female narrative, reclaiming and retelling true events in our history. A blend of fact, fiction and magical realism, the books hits its stride about halfway through when Ingeborg arrives at Vardo. The first half of the book is admittedly a little slow and directionless, but the second half – when Ingeborg and Anna’s storylines finally intersect – draws readers in and will maintain engagement until the final page.
There is no doubt that the author has researched the subject matter meticulously, and so credit must be given for capturing the era and the setting – for bringing the locations and the atmosphere to life. The suspicion, the inaccuracies, the fear. It’s an interesting era to look back on, and so it formed a very intriguing backdrop for the tale.
“Ingeborg knew she should break up the dance. She knew it was wrong. But her body wouldn’t let her. The rhyme was one she had never heard before, and yet it felt as if she knew the words before Maren uttered them.”
This is definitely more of a plot-driven story than a character driven one. In fact, many of the characters started to blur together throughout the story, and I’m not convinced that the author’s structure and storytelling was enough to hook me in.
Whilst there were some fantastic elements to the story – ancient folklore tales and a suite of badass female characters – some of the dialogue felt forced and unnatural, the pacing was inconsistent throughout the story, the villains weren’t nuanced and had very little depth to them, and decisions made in the book didn’t make a huge amount of success. Relations between characters felt a bit unbelievable, and moments of realisation skimmed over in favour of plot. The ending, too, felt unsatisfying.
It felt like the setup of the story took so long that I wonder if it started in the right spot. Should the story have started with Ingeborg’s mother already imprisoned? To kickstart the journey to Vardo a little sooner?
“Maren was a poor fisher girl like the rest of them, and yet when she narrated her story Ingeborg could see the old Norse Goddess Freya within her – in the dewy dark softness of her eyes, and the bite of her over lip. Love and War.”
A promising retelling of Norwegian history, Anya Bergman’s The Witches of Vardo will appeal to female readers, and fans of historical fiction and mythical or factual tales. Readership skews 25+
Thank you to the publishing company for mailing me a review copy in exchange for an honest review.
The Witches of Vardo
Allen & Unwin Book Publishers