Book Review: The Book of Gothel by Mary McMyne

book review the book of gothel mary mcmyne
the book of gothel mary mcmyne

Title: The Book of Gothel

Author: Mary McMyne

Publisher: Redhook

Publication date: July 26, 2022

Genre: Historical Fantasy

One Sentence Summary: This is the untold story of Mother Gothel, the witch who locked Rapunzel in the tower.


The Book of Gothel presents a possible backstory for Rapunzel‘s Mother Gothel. Here, Haelewise tells her own story, her own truth. I cannot comment on the accuracy of any of the historical details, but this book transported me to medieval Germany and it was a lot of fun to see some royal characters. It was a fantastic field for the characters to move around on, and they played their roles to perfection. I liked how Haelewise was so strong willed, but so hemmed in by society. I did wish for her to fly into a rage, but she was always perfectly in character. The Book of Gothel is a story that focuses on women and motherhood, magic and one woman’s will to do what’s right. It makes Mother Gothel a more sympathetic character, so it was great to get this possible backstory for her.

Extended Thoughts

Everyone knows the story of Rapunzel, but the fairy tale tells us little about Mother Gothel, the witch who locked Rapunzel in her tower. The Book of Gothel seeks to rectify that. Her name is Haelewise, and she’s the daughter of a midwife and a fisherman. All she wants is to marry the tailor’s son, her childhood friend, and become a midwife like her mother. But she suffers from fainting spells, so the people shun her, her only solace the stories of princesses and princes her mother weaves for her. When her mother dies, there’s nothing to protect Haelewise, so she runs to the tower in the woods, where she apprentices herself to the wise woman there. But, when a young woman carrying a dangerous secret seeks them out, Haelewise’s life takes a sudden turn, leading her on a journey right into the arms of princes and princesses, kings and queens. And a magic Haelewise is thirsty to know.

The Book of Gothel is a lovely, lush historical fantasy that imagines the life of Mother Gothel before Rapunzel came to live in the tower. It paints Mother Gothel in a very different light, and gives the woman in question some control over her own life and the stories others tell about her. Set in a medieval Germany, women have little power and even fewer means of standing up for themselves. Haelewise must operate within these confines, but she’s still powerful and headstrong, doing what she must to protect other women. She was fascinating and her story is beautiful and heartbreaking. But The book of Gothel also felt long and windy, taking almost too long to really get to the point where the reader can connect this story with Rapunzel, and feeling more like a series of quests throughout the middle.

The Book of Gothel is set in a fantastical version of medieval Germany, and really brought it to life. There’s a startling amount of detail, though it never becomes overwhelming, and all of it works well together to transport the reader back in time. This is really where the book shines. The attention to detail, the phrasing, the way the stories are woven and told, the way the people lived, it all worked seamlessly together to present a world that made me feel like I was stepping back in time. I’m not a big fan of historical fiction as they tend to feel either over or under done, but my favorite thing was how Middle High German was worked into the narrative. Small details and consistency made it possible to really immerse myself in this world, and the touch of magic didn’t hurt, either. I liked how the story remained focused and offered just the right playing field for the characters.

The characters were great, but too many of them felt a little one dimensional. They were almost like fairy tale characters themselves with not much depth beyond midwife, towns person, king, princess, servant, etc. They played their roles to perfection, but they suffered from the same problem as fairy tale characters: I know almost nothing about them beyond the role they’re meant to play. There aren’t many motivations. The court intrigue was light and seemed mostly focused on a crazy prince. There were, though, some great backstories to some of the characters, that helped make them come to life and either show how their hands were tied or to offer a few layers to them. Since this is Haelewise’s story, the reader really gets to know her. She’s quite strong-willed and has a strong sense of duty. Though she’s also driven by a mysterious voice, so it was sometimes hard to tell if she was just following orders or really felt she needed to do something. The dangers she puts herself into, though, really reveals how quick thinking and brave she is. Haelewise is not an ugly figure. She’s had a hard life, but still puts herself into harm’s way to protect. I hated that there was little she could do to improve her life and there were so many times I just wanted her to go into a rage, but she remained in character and within the bounds of her time period to create a sympathetic character very different from Rapunzel‘s Mother Gothel.

If there’s anything I didn’t like about this book, it would be the story itself. I appreciated what the author did, giving Haelewise an excellent backstory, but it felt too windy to me. The beginning is wonderful, setting up the characters and the setting and suggesting the reader be sympathetic to Haelewise. But, after her mother dies, the story suddenly feels like it becomes a series of quests. Haelewise is sent here and then there and, at each place, she must accomplish something. Some of it is because she chose it, but others are because she’s guided by a voice. It was just a little aggravating because, halfway through, I still had no clue where the story was going, felt a little let down by the description, and couldn’t see how this could possibly lead to the story told in Rapunzel. This reads extremely easily, though, making for a quick read, but the story itself felt much more slow moving. It was helped by small details from Rapunzel’s story that were displaced into Haelewise’s. It was fantastic to recognize bits and pieces, and even more wonderful to see just how perfectly they fit into Haelewise’s life and story.

What I did love, though, was the inclusion of magic and Christianity. There’s a subtle war between them, and I loved how the historical figure Hildegard of Bingen was woven in and embodied this battle. There’s the Mother, who is worshiped by those like Haelewise, her mother, and the current Mother Gothel Haelewise apprentices herself to. She’s that touch of magic that makes some really interesting things possible. I loved this magic as it helped make me feel like I was reading a fairy tale. And then there’s the other side, the religion that feels like it’s trying to take over. I loved reading how these were woven in, but, overall, it didn’t feel like a huge piece of the story, though it was much more than just details.

In this current society, The Book of Gothel feels very important. It has a special focus on motherhood and midwifery, and giving women a choice. The character of Rika mentioned in the description perfectly embodied this push and pull, though the characters are definitely bounded by the society and their own desires. I loved how this book offers a peek into what giving birth might have been like, and how it didn’t shy away from any part of it. Motherhood, actual and dreamed, played a big role in this story, making it feel both softly and fiercely feminine.

The Book of Gothel is a fascinating historical fantasy story imaging the possible life of Mother Gothel before Rapunzel came to live in the tower. It wonderfully captures medieval Germany, though I cannot comment on any accuracy. It made me feel like I was there. The characters were given a rich world to operate in, but I felt Haelewise was sent on one too many quests. I liked how all the royal characters were woven in, though there were some I wished to have spent more time with. Overall, this was a fun, easy to read story that really made sense as a possible backstory for Mother Gothel.

How many cups of tea will you need?

4 cups

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Thank you to Orbit/Redhook and NetGalley for a review copy. All opinions expressed are my own.

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the book of gothel mary mcmyne book review

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