A hauntingly atmospheric tale set on the North Somerset coast in 1616, this book evokes a creeping sensation of foreboding as we follow Fortune Sharpe from her home in the hamlet of Fair Maidens Lane to the house of a rich merchant further up the coastline of the Bristol Channel.
It is the reign of King James, and his men are prowling the Somerset countryside , seeking to grab productive land and arresting midwives and other women skilled in the art of healing with herbs on suspicion of witchcraft. Fortune has to leave her home in a hurry when she is spotted rowing a boat on the Sabbath; her mother sends her away, disguised as a boy, to be hired as a servant at the market in Bridgwater. The only item that she takes from home is a strange package, which is taken from her at the market by a mysterious stranger.
Fortune finds herself hired as the personal servant to Ellis Spicer, the heir to a merchant who has made his fortune from the sugar trade. In Berrow Hall, a house of secrets, Fortune must adapt to a life of subterfuge, helping her new master hide his ambition (to become a performer) from his bullying father who will only countenance him taking over the family business. The glittering house is suffused with sadness, after losing his wife during childbirth, Mr Spicer loathes women and wants nothing to do with his baby daughter Bea who is left in the care of her siblings and servants. He and the sadistic barber- dentist, Dr Blood have a plan to hunt “witches” and gain favour from the King, hoping to win naval protection for their trading ships..
After a night of celebrations for Twelfth Night, Ellis disappears, and whilst searching for him, Fortune and Susannah start to sense “ an ice-cold dread that something very terrible was about to happen.”
From this moment the plot gains a momentum that will knock you off your feet and leave you breathless until the final pages, when you can at last come up for air!
As always, Emma Carroll effortlessly weaves a tale from real historical facts, a tangible sense of place and her supreme talent for character creation. The venal Dr Blood is a character to freeze the contents of your veins! The story is suffused with an underlying message of accepting everyone’s differences and the dangers of looking for scapegoats when things go wrong. There is a fine cast of strong female characters, standing up for their rights against the patriarchy of the age, but I also loved the inclusion of a great male role model in Fortune’s brother Jem, whose love for his sister is bravely demonstrated.
A highly recommended read for upper Key Stage 2 children (10+).