Cecelia Holland’s The King’s Witch (New York: Berkley, 2011) is a historical novel set during the Third Crusade to take Jerusalem, around 1191. Edythe – a young Jewish woman pretending to be Christian – is dispatched by Queen Eleanor of Aquitaine to inform on her children, Richard the Lionheart and his sister Johanna. Edythe has inherited a little folk-healing skill from her physician father, and using her knowledge of herbs and potions she manages to save the king’s life when he contracts a dangerous fever, a feat than earns her the nickname of witch. Fortunately, this is the era before the Burning Times swept across Europe.
King Richard embarks on his holy campaign to atone for the homosexuality he believes makes him a monster in the eyes of God. On the same journey, Edythe begins her own religious pilgrimage to discover and reclaim her Jewish heritage. She develops a bond with another outsider, the king’s bastard relative called Rouquin, who tells her that Richard’s crusade “isn’t about God” but rather “about power.” This ironically proves true at the end – with the suggestion that the strongest power on earth is love.
Although a lot of political background informs the start of the novel, Holland’s crisp style cuts cleanly through to the center of this original, inventive tale. It is well-researched and nicely executed, especially the early medicinal knowledge which includes a particularly harrowing head-trauma surgery. The King’s Witch can be classified as both a romance and a fiction. And while the relationship between Edythe and Rouquin is not entirely convincing, the action scenes and excellent details prove sufficient to make this a satisfying historical novel.