From the whimsical adventures searching for Norwegian fae, in Emily Wilde’s Encyclopaedia of Faeries, today’s review remains in the North but it ventures back to the dark times of the witch trials. The Emporium’s attraction to The Witches of Vardo by Anya Bergman is clear -put witch is the title and the bookshelf will covet it but scroll down to see if this novel deserves a place on the shelf on merit alone.
Book Review: The Witches of Vardo by Anya Bergman
Title: The Witches of Vardo
Author: Anya Bergman
Genre: Fiction, Witchlit, Historical fiction
Release date: 12th Jan 2023
1662. Norway. A dangerous time to be a woman, when even dancing can lead to accusations of witchcraft. When Zigri, a normal fisherman’s wife, desperate and grieving after the loss of her husband and son, embarks on an affair with the married son of a wealthy merchant, it is not long before she is sent to the fortress at Vardø, to be tried and condemned as a witch. Summer is twenty-four hours of light and winter is twenty-four hours of darkness, and night is closing in.
Zigri’s daughter Ingeborg leaves her younger sister and 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 with instructions to extract the confessions from the supposed witches. Once the King of Denmark’s mistress, she has been brought to Vardø in disgrace. What will she do – and who will she betray – to return to her privileged life at court?
These Witches of Vardø 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.
The Witches of Vardø is based upon the real events of witch hunts in Norway in 1662. A blend of historical fact with magic realism, retellings of old Nordic folktales, Norse mythology and Sámi mythology, and told from the points of view of Anna and Ingeborg, it will take your breath away.
Thoughts from the Emporium
After reading, this novel’s worthiness for being on the enchanted shelf is beyond doubt. Spellbound, Amber and Willow have also bought copies to keep for themselves for the knowledge it contains and the compelling storytelling they know they will return to.
Beyond the witch trials in the UK and Salem, the Emporium’s witches’ knowledge of them is sketchy, so both were intrigued by this book’s basis in fact. What followed horrified and enthralled them in equal measure and triggered heated debates between customers about the role of misogyny, fear and spite in the persecution of so-called witches.
Told in two voices, the reader sees the story from the viewpoint of the accused and those against them, gave a full experience of the events. The smattering of mythology and folk tales blended in added depth and context to the magical side to the novel.
Daughter of a physician, Anna is outspoken, and intelligent and used to the finer things in life and in exile to Vardo. Like many characters in this book, she is complex and multifaceted. Willow and Amber wanted to dislike her; she made their blood curdle with rage at her support for tracking down the witches but when her life story was revealed their stance wavered. Was she a woman with good intentions trapped by circumstance? Like Willow suggested. Or pure evil which was Amber’s more rigid stance. Book clubs will have fun unpicking their thoughts.
Ingeborg’s chapters highlighted the harsh realities of the fishing village she lives in where poverty is rife, women vulnerable and superstition thrives. Young, she has grown up too fast to care for her younger sister Kirsten while battling her own grief with the loss of her brother. Loss and grief are consistent themes in the book, exploring how its power can lead to unwise decisions with far reaching consequences. Her loyalty, level headedness and love for family shone on the page making everyone eager for her to succeed on her mission to rescue her mother when she became entangled with a frenzy of hate, fuelled by misogyny and ability to use the accusation of witch as punishment for any misdemeanor or perceived fault.
Maren, daughter of a feared and infamous witch provided the mystical elements to the novel with her fantastical stories, unreliable narration and unwavering strength. She added to the are they or aren’t they witches thread that cleverly ran throughout.
The Emporium witches were completely immersed in the 17th century world Anya Bergman created thanks to the small details in character, location, dress and experience. They could taste the sugar almonds and feel the pleasure of seeing the Northern lights. The research must have been immense and they were thrilled to discover a reading list at the back of the book so they could explore things more for themselves.
The Witches of Vardo is a compelling, dark and emotional historical tale of loyalty, female strength, magic and betrayal. Its impactful and the unexpected ending showcased its strength in storytelling.
Anya Bergman lives in Ireland. She graduated from Edinburgh Napier with a Master’s in Creative Writing with distinction in 2020. She lived for six years in Norway researching this book extensively. The Witches of Vardø, a passion project, is her debut novel.She says: “My aim is to raise the lost of voices of the women of Vardø with tenderness, to reclaim their agency and to empower the reader with a strong sense of F*** the patriarchy!”