Tracy Borman is a fabulous historian (one of my favorites, actually) and has written some incredibly fascinating and well-researched non-fiction. But "The King's Witch" is her first foray into the wonderful world of historical fiction (published in 2018), and I have to say, this is a great example of an author who can very competently write both fiction and nonfiction (and no, I don't believe that's always the case!). Below is my full review of this fascinating story, following healer Frances Gorges, a character you can't help but cheer for. (She was also a real person, unbeknownst to me!)
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?
Sir William Cecil - a key figure in the Elizabethan government, and new right-hand man to King James, proves immediately to be one of Frances's foes. He's deeply suspicious of her, and takes his role leading James's witch hunt quite seriously. He is determined to bring Frances to justice - right to the grisly fate of 17th-century witches: burning at the stake. Tracy Borman writes so vividly as to make you seriously afraid of Cecil on Frances's behalf. (I've rarely disliked a character so much in historical fiction, but Cecil is a vile character here).
When Frances is summoned back to court soon after James's ascension, to serve his young daughter, the Princess Elizabeth, she finds herself cornered by her enemies. Somehow she must carefully navigate the treacherous environment of court - while maintaining her healing work, and serving faithfully in the child princess's household. It doesn't take long before she's forced to view the fate of a condemned witch herself, showing her just how careful she must be. Thankfully, in addition to her several enemies, she finds some really heartwarming allies - and even a bit of romance.
I found Frances's character to be one of immense strength and kindness, which made her the perfect heroine in my eyes. Her life is not an easy one (and the court of the cold and cruel King James is certainly not portrayed as one I'd like to have experienced). Unfortunately, as the novel progresses, Frances's life is not made any easier... and without giving away any spoilers, I'll say that she finds herself swept up in the most treasonous plot against James I - the Gunpowder Plot, in which Catholic rebels sought to blow up Parliament, where the king, his heir, and all high-ranking members of government presided.
We know the fate of the Gunpowder Plot and its ultimate failure... so Frances's troubles certainly continue. The second half of this book is so good that I so badly want to write this review in more detail, but doing so would spoil some of the best, most tear-jerking aspects of the story. Suffice to say, it certainly tugs at the heartstrings.
Overall, I really highly recommend this novel - the first in Tracy's "Frances Gorges Trilogy". She is a fantastic writer, and I can guarantee that her fiction will suck you in just as thoroughly as her nonfiction. Personally, I can't wait to pick up (or listen to) book #2, which will carry on following the executions of the Gunpowder Plot traitors. I'm anxious to see where Frances's story goes from there...