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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Vanishing Witch
This novel takes us from September 1380 to September 1381 and takes place mainly around the city of Lincoln. The main plot revolves around respected wool merchant, Robert of Bassingham, married to Edith and with two sons, Jan and Adam. When Robert is approached by wealthy widow, Catlin, he is flattered and happy to help give her advice. Before long, Catlin has wormed her...
Published 8 months ago by S Riaz

versus
3.0 out of 5 stars The period detail is quite well done and the (I think contemporary) quotations about witchcraft are interesting and the supernat
This story got off to a rollicking start but then petered out, at least for me. The period detail is quite well done and the (I think contemporary) quotations about witchcraft are interesting and the supernatural aspect is nicely handled. That said, after the initial scene setting, things become a little leaden.

The basic plot is quite simple and what is...
Published 4 months ago by H. T. Davies


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25 of 27 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars The Vanishing Witch, 7 July 2014
By 
S Riaz "S Riaz" (England) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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This novel takes us from September 1380 to September 1381 and takes place mainly around the city of Lincoln. The main plot revolves around respected wool merchant, Robert of Bassingham, married to Edith and with two sons, Jan and Adam. When Robert is approached by wealthy widow, Catlin, he is flattered and happy to help give her advice. Before long, Catlin has wormed her way into Robert’s affections and into his household, although Edith’s maid Beata is suspicious of her motives and Jan feels he is making a fool of himself with the younger woman.

A side story concerns river boatman Gunter, who lives with his beloved wife and children in a small village outside of the city. Work is hard to find and the family live in poverty, but their troubles are about to be increased with the new poll tax. This was a tax to be paid for every person in a household over the age of fifteen and, not trusting those paying to declare everyone in their family, Commissioners would visit and carry out intrusive and crude investigations into the age of children living there which caused outrage among the people already struggling to pay. As Gunter works for Robert and lives in a cottage owned by him, their stories interact throughout the novel.

I have read, and enjoyed, all of Karen Maitland’s novels and this is certainly one of her best. Anyone familiar with her books will know that there is often a magical element to her stories and this is the case in this one too. With tales of ghosts, sorcery and witchcraft, this is a tale of murder and magic. From the beginning, we doubt the motives of Caitlin and her children – the arrogant Edward and the sinister Leonia – and her designs on Robert and his family. Yet, it is unclear that is to blame for unfolding events and, indeed, there are a number of plot twists which will alter your perception of the different characters as you read on

Although I really enjoyed the mystery concerning Robert of Bassingham, I felt the storyline concerning the Peasants’ Revolt worked less well. This is a pretty hefty book, but still the author perhaps tries to fit too many side stories and events into the plot. However, as always, her characters are interesting and her ability to create a realistic historical background excellent. Each chapter begins with spells and anti-witchcraft charms, taken from medieval texts and folklore, which help set the scene and create an arresting atmosphere. Lincoln is a city where the rich fear attack, the poor fear starvation and unrest lurks, alongside the spirits, in the narrow lanes. If you enjoy historical mysteries, then Karen Maitland is an author that you should certainly add to your reading list.
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7 of 8 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark historical tale, 14 Aug. 2014
By 
Denise4891 (Cheshire) - See all my reviews
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I’ve really enjoyed Karen Maitland’s previous novels in which she combined historical and magical storylines to brilliant effect.

The Vanishing Witch is set in fourteenth century Lincoln and centres around wool-merchant Robert Bassingham. When we meet Robert he’s married to childhood sweetheart Edith, but it’s fair to say their marriage is not all wine and roses. His elder son Jan works as a steward in the family business, and younger son Adam has plans to pursue a more intellectual career, much to his father’s disdain. Robert is swept off his feet when he meet widow Caitlin, who inveigles her way into his life and sets it on a course of death and destruction.

As often happens in Maitland’s novels, some of the more minor characters are the most interesting and sympathetic . The Bassingham family’s servants Beata and Tenney have a touching relationship and local riverman (and Robert’s tenant) Gunter struggles to earn a living in the face of rising taxes imposed by Robert at the behest of Richard II. This leads us to a sub-plot featuring the Peasant’s Revolt, which I personally would have liked to have seen explored in a bit more depth.

It’s a dark and bawdy historical tale and I enjoyed it a lot, though it’s not my favourite Maitland novel. I think some of the humour found in her earlier books, particularly The Owl Killers, has been missing of late, and I do miss it. However, her trademark storytelling and characterisation are just as strong.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Solid effort, 1 Oct. 2014
This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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I've never read any of Karen Maitland's other novels but after reading The Vanishing Witch I'll definitely be taking a look to see if any others take my fancy because this is an interesting and well written story, the quality's definitely there. I did find the setting and whole historical aspect of the story very interesting and for me it worked as a backdrop to the Witch-like goings on and unlike another novel I've read recently the supernatural elements didn't take me out of the story; in fact far from it, they just drew me further in. Unlike others, it would seem, I really enjoyed the darker tome of the story, it seems a while since I read something with a nice (for me) darker feel to it, so this aspect I really enjoyed. The only thing I really had a problem with were some of the characters just not being interesting, or perhaps defined/fleshed out enough, but then there are an awful lot of them so perhaps I'm being a tad picky. Still a good quality, solid effort and I hope to read more from the author soon.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars If you've enjoyed Maitland's previous novels, 6 Sept. 2014
By 
Gillian Jack (Edinburgh, Scotland) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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Another enjoyable mixture of historical and supernatural fiction from Karen Maitland. This time, the setting is fourteenth century Lincoln and follows a typically wide cast of characters including cloth merchant Robert and his family, the mysterious Catlin, the river boatman Gunter. As the story unfolds we see how their lives come together.

If you've enjoyed Maitland's previous novels, you will probably enjoy this one too. It features her trademark mixture of dark, magical elements with a gritty historical setting and varied cast of characters. One of her strengths is her nuanced characters and portrayals of people from different walks of life in the past. This isn't a story of noble and court life that many historical novels focus on, but numerous "ordinary" people.

This is a dark tale, perfect as the nights draw in.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Intriguing historical thriller, 24 Sept. 2014
By 
downkiddie "downkiddie" (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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This book richly weaves intrigue, adventure and a touch of the supernatural into an enjoyable romp. I have to admit I didn't enjoy it quite as much as some of Karen Maitland's others, though having said that I loved the setting of medieval Lincoln, which is richly evoked and being a city I know well is still recognisable today.

Like so many novels these days this a long book, and I'd be happy with a book half the length. That said, there are plenty of twists and turns and a cast of characters to keep it interesting. Some of the interwoven strands to the story petered out towards the end I felt, and the supernatural element wasn't quite strong enough for my liking.

But the above are minor points. Anyone who enjoys Maitland's work should enjoy this, and the dark tale of intrigue with a superb historical setting.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Dark and bawdy historical romp., 11 Sept. 2014
By 
JK "J. K." (UK) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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The usual Karen Maitland mix of history, superstition and the supernatural. I find her scene setting great and The Vanishing Witch is no exception. There's a dark heart to the story and it's quite compelling.

Set in 14th century Lincoln the plot is centred around the character of merchant Robert Bassingham and I think it's fair to say, initially, he's not exactly a happily married man. It's not a great surprise when Robert's eyes wander in the direction of the enigmatic Caitlin, a widow, but suspicions are immediately raised by Caitlin's real motivations!. She seems perhaps a little to eager to maneuver her way into his life and once she's there well; it's true to say Robert's life begins to spiral rapidly in the wrong direction. Perhaps that's merely coincidence?. Could it be witchcraft?.

I enjoyed some of the smaller characters in the novel more than some of the most obvious. That's something I usually find with this author. There's a lot of 'small stories' tucked away inside the body of the main plot and they can be really enjoyable. A nice feature here is the story of the Bassingham servants as they suffer under huge tax demands imposed upon them by Robert who has no choice but to obey instruction from the King, Richard II. Leads nicely into Maitland's themes of the 'Peasant's Revolt'. The story builds nicely but it's true to say that it takes it's time and requires some concentration.

Dark and bawdy but perhaps missing out on some of the Maitland humour and sparkle I discovered in her other novels. I enjoyed 'The Vanishing Witch' but not as much as some of her earlier work.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Wonderful, atmospheric read, 11 Mar. 2015
This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Hardcover)
I've wanted to read Karen Maitland's work for years, ever since I read reviews for Company of Liars, but as often happens in a reviewer's life, I never got to it. This made me doubly excited when this ARC for The Vanishing Witch appeared in my mailbox, but it was a big book - 688 pages in my proof copy - and it languished on my To Be Read pile. Now with the paperback for The Vanishing Witch out tomorrow, not to mention Maitland's latest The Raven's Head, this seemed a good time to read it. It was a wonderful read, super atmospheric and very much what I expected Maitland's writing to be based of what I've read of her non-fiction articles on The History Girls.

Set in Lincoln around the time of the Peasant's Revolt, The Vanishing Witch is an interesting story of love, lust, riches and intrigue seasoned with some supernatural elements. Maitland uses an interesting narrative structure, switching points of view between a number of characters and an omniscient narrator who sometimes interjects passages at the beginning of a chapter. It is only this unidentified narrator and the two female points of view who are written in the first person, the other (male) viewpoints are written in the third person. This not only allows her to show us all angles of the story, the reader is also presented with the mystery of the narrator's identity and lets her introduce some uncertainty in the form of two unreliable narrators.

Even if the book is titled The Vanishing Witch Maitland never comes right out and confirms or denies whether there truly is witchcraft in the book or whether it is all done with the power of suggestion. I thought this was masterfully done and I enjoyed puzzling over it. There is certainly a sense of the supernatural to the narrative due to the unidentified narrator being a ghost, yet the magic in the book could theoretically all be reasoned away with more mundane explanations. Maitland manages to keep the possible identity of the titular witch nebulous too, leaving the reader to decide whether the women in the book are all or none of them witches.

At the heart of The Vanishing Witch is the family of Robert of Bassingham. His infatuation and eventual marriage to the Widow Catlin sets in motion a chain of events that will lead to heartbreak, death and grief for his entire family. While Robert isn't a bad man in essence, he lets himself be blinded by Catlin and go through what is essentially a mid-life crisis. He was a sympathetic character, but also very frustrating. His sons Jan and Adam as far more easily likeable and I enjoyed the way Maitland developed them, especially Adam. My favourite members of the original Bassingham household, however, were the servants Beata and Tenney. Through their long service with the family there seems to be a strong sense of loyalty and belonging on their part, which was echoed in Adam's trust in Beata. On the other hand, Maitland takes care to show the huge gap that existed between merchants such as Robert, people in positions of what we'd call middle management such as the overseer Fulk, and the regular workers like the boatmen, who while freemen are subject to the whim of their masters, demonstrating that the class system was already deeply ingrained in society and had already created fertile ground for the poll tax that seeded the Peasants' Revolt.

The new additions to Robert's family, Catlin and her children Edward and Leonia are simultaneously cast as victims and villains depending on whose point of view we're in. Robert only sees the good in them, at least in Catlin and Leonia, while Jan, Beata, and Adam are deeply distrustful of them. Maitland skilfully employs Catlin's point of view to keep the reader in suspense as to her true intentions, only revealing Catlin's full hand late in the game. The character in the book I found most disturbing was Leonia. Ostensibly a beautiful, innocent young girl on the cusp of womanhood, she has many secrets and is far more cunning than any fourteen-year-old should be and her treatment of Adam and Robert was quite creepy at times.

While the main story deals with Catlin and Robert, I found the chapters dealing with the boatman Gunter and his family very compelling and I really felt for Gunter. Here is a man who tries to do everything right, to care for his family and be a decent human being and he's being worked over by the system left, right, and centre. It was his tale that made the reasons for the Peasants' Revolt tangible and immediate. The poll tax and the way the commissioners double-checking the entrants abused their positions, especially as regards the young girls in a household, felt so unfair and made people so powerless, it is hard to see how they couldn't have risen again the ruling class. The Peasants' Revolt is a fascinating event in English history and it made a wonderful backdrop for Maitland's story, interweaving the supernatural and historic, letting the latter serve as plausible explanations for what would otherwise have to be designated witchcraft.

The Vanishing Witch is set in a fascinating era and Karen Maitland tells a fabulous story. I really enjoyed The Vanishing Witch; it offered drama, pathos, and more than a hint of mystery. If you like the intersection between historical fiction and the supernatural, this is a story you definitely shouldn't miss.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.
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5.0 out of 5 stars A Tale of Betrayal, Treachery and Greed, 20 Sept. 2014
By 
Brett H "pentangle" (Brighton) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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This is a tale of betrayal, treachery and greed set in Medieval England during the reign of King Richard II. As is usual with a Karen Maitland novel, the story weaves its way around real historical events of the time. In this case the well documented Peasants' Revolt when the poor of England rose up against the counsellors surrounding the young King whom they blamed for the imposition of the unreasonable poll tax to pay for the costly wars with France.

Two of the main characters in the story become embroiled in this revolt, though in different ways and with very different consequences. However the Revolt entwined them and their connections foils a further plot in the novel and changes the fate of its' main protagonists forever.

The sack of John of Gaunt's palace, one of the major destructions of the Revolt, appears in the novel. The rivalry between the English and Florentine Merchants and particularly the wool merchants of Lincoln are historically known. Many of the buildings referred to in the novel,such as the old Guildhall where two of the main characters meet are well documented as having existed, although they are now no more.

There are other charming historical touches: each new section and each sub paragraph within them begin with spells, weather lore or anti witchcraft spells taken from recorded folklore ,medieval spell books or ecclesiastical writings.

Karen Maitland is a master at using real history to authenticate her stories and on that score this one does not disappoint.

The tale itself is told from several perspectives and sometimes I found this a little incongruous, especially as one was a ghost! However the characters are all well individually crafted which does help make this more palatable and the number of chapters with different lives and issues help the main plot come alive.

My only other slight criticism would be that it's overly long. At 661 pages it is not for the faint hearted. It could have been shortened without the story suffering. Having said that it's a good read and if you enjoy this genre you'll find yourself engrossed in its pages.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Deadly deeds in medieval Lincoln, 11 July 2014
By 
Petra Bryce "bookworm" (Malvern, Worcs) - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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Robert of Bassingham is a wealthy cloth merchant in the city of Lincoln. One day he is approached by Widow Catlin, who seeks his advice with regard to investing some of the money left to her by her husband. Soon Robert finds himself falling head over heels for the comely widow, despite protestations to his wife that it isn’t so. When Edith starts to fall ill, Catlin moves into the house to care for her, bringing her grown-up son Edward and her adolescent daughter Leonia with her.

At the same time, labourers and peasants up and down the country are literally up in arms as a result of King Richard II levying a heavy poll tax on every man and woman over the age of fifteen. Feeling they are left with no other recourse, rebels march on London to parley with the king. Though the riots and execution-style murders are centred on London, the ripples of rebellion are making themselves felt even in faraway Lincoln.

Karen Maitland is one of my favourite authors as she consistently keeps the reader engaged with her dark tales of England’s medieval past, exploring events that other authors of historical fiction novels disregard in favour of more popular periods (e.g. the Tudors). Her characters, in particular the female ones, are strong and convincing, her descriptions of everyday customs, fashions, dishes and occupations, infused with some local dialect, adding real atmosphere, making a bygone age appear before your inner eye. Usually infused with a fair amount of the supernatural, she manages to make everything paranormal appear terrifyingly plausible. As always, she takes the time and trouble to deepen the interested reader’s understanding of the events portrayed in the novel by adding a fairly comprehensive glossary and historical notes in the appendix.

With regards to the plot, it twists and turns like the snake on the front cover, and I won’t be giving too much away by saying that not everyone lives to see the end of the book, and that some are not what they at first appear. It’s fair to say that I was gripped from beginning to end and raced through the nearly 700 pages in less than a week, yet it still felt as if I was leaving some of the characters too soon. If that’s not recommendation enough, then I don’t know what is.
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3.0 out of 5 stars The period detail is quite well done and the (I think contemporary) quotations about witchcraft are interesting and the supernat, 24 Nov. 2014
By 
H. T. Davies - See all my reviews
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This review is from: The Vanishing Witch (Paperback)
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This story got off to a rollicking start but then petered out, at least for me. The period detail is quite well done and the (I think contemporary) quotations about witchcraft are interesting and the supernatural aspect is nicely handled. That said, after the initial scene setting, things become a little leaden.

The basic plot is quite simple and what is happening becomes clear fairly early on so there's not really much susepnse of the whodunnit variety and the ending does not come as a surprise but more as a sort of relief when what you've been expecting for a couple of hundred pages actually happens. This lack of drive then caused the period detail to pall with me a little.

The dialogue is also rather heavy. Although it's not of the "gadzooks" faux-medieval variety is does tend towards the over explanatory at times and at others seems hammy.

I was expecting to really enjoy this novel as it has all the ingredients I like, murder mystery, history and the supernatural but somehow they just did not come together for me and was left with a feeling of wanting something more. Even though it wasn't really to my taste it's clear the writer has a great knowledge of the medieval period and can plot out a book. Maybe some tighter editing was required to bring everything into focus.

Still, if you like medieval murder mysteries I think you should find something in it.
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