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The King’s Witch

by Cecelia Holland

Edythe is sent by Queen Eleanor to accompany her children Johanna and Richard on the Crusade to recapture Jerusalem. From her physician father, Edythe learned the art of healing, knowledge that comes in useful when Richard is stricken with a horrible fever. As Edythe pulls him back from the brink of death, Richard figures out Edythe’s greatest secret - that she is a Jew masquerading as a Christian. But Edythe is useful, and so Richard keeps her close, protecting his “little monster” even as rumors begin to circulate amongst his soldiers that Edythe is a witch. As the crusaders travel deeper into the Holy Land, Edythe begins to draw closer to Rouquin, a bastard relative of King Richard. As political intrigue surges around her, Edythe must find a way to balance the secrets of her past and the hopes of her future. 

The details in this book brought a different side of the Crusade to life for me. Edythe spends a lot of time away from the Crusaders’ camp, wandering the streets of Acre and Jaffa in search of herbs and tinctures. The civilians were often more interesting than the drawn-out battle scenes, whether it was a starving child begging for a few morsels of food or a merchant hurrying to sell his wares in a square that was a battleground only a few hours before.  The scramble to survive was always the most compelling part of the narrative, even when it’s just a few anonymous “extras” in the background. 

I really enjoyed all the descriptions of twelfth century medical techniques, too. While Edythe focuses on mixing healing draughts and other herbal remedies, her travels bring her into contact with other healers. A German knight-turned-healer she encounters bases his medical practice on the movement of planets and the moon; his heart is in the right place, even if his understanding of healing isn’t. Edythe also meets a doctor with a stronger medical background, and together they perform surgery for head trauma on one of Richard’s knights, cutting into his skull and peeling back the skin – it sounds totally gross, but it’s fascinating.  

Edythe seems to spend more time tending to the feverish King Richard or seeking cures for his illness than she does charming Rouquin, so their romance feels a little forced. Indeed, Edythe often seems so wrapped up in Richard that I’m surprised she developed feelings for any other man. It doesn’t help that compared to the king, Rouquin’s personality is sadly lacking. Richard’s so naturally dominating that he takes over the narrative again and again, and Rouquin can’t hold the reader’s attention the same way. 

So many kings and queens were vying for control of the Holy Land that it got confusing, and bogged down the story, but overall The King’s Witch was an entertaining novel that brought the Crusades to life. 

3.5 out of 5 stars

 

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