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Historical Mysteries

The Witch in the Well, Sharan Newman, Forge, $24.95.

This was the best seller of our Christmas season, appearing as it did right before Christmas, and sating the appetites of the many Newmanophiles eager for news of Newman's heroine, Catherine LeVendeur. Newman's last novel, The Outcast Dove, focused on Catherine's cousin Solomon and was a nuanced and complex look at father/son relations. In contrast, The Witch in the Well again features Catherine and Edgar, and it's the kind of wonderful story that keeps you up at night, eager to figure out what's going to happen. I had no idea, and this was one of the more delicious reads I've had in awhile - great story, great characters, and a really memorable, creepy and emotionally packed setting. When Catherine's snarky sister Agnes appears out of nowhere (well, from Germany) I knew I was in for a great ride.

The premise has a hint of fantasy and centers around the family myth (which, to Catherine's intense annoyance, no one has ever told her) - the myth being that if the well at the ancestral home dries up, it spells doom for all descendants, including Catherine and her children. They are all called back to the family Castle in Blois - an impenetrable, forbidding fortress built of thick stone with scores of mysterious passages underneath it. Catherine and Edgar are mystified when, on their arrival, the villagers greet the sight of their children with shouts of glee. This just makes a jumpy Catherine and Edgar put a full time watch on their children as they try to unravel the family secrets - including a mysterious "Green Lady" who keeps appearing out of nowhere. The hard headed Catherine is bent on discovering the truth behind the apparition.

This has one of the more fast paced and well constructed stories I've encountered in some time, all the while containing details of 12th century life inside a castle. Newman never omits any kind of detail of daily living - so while Catherine's intelligence is much called upon, we also know that (unusually for the time, for a woman of her class) she breast feeds her own baby; what time of the month it is for the women characters and how they deal with it; and what the arrangements are for feeding a castle full of people when they are all huddled inside waiting for an invader's attack. As a reader, you are really and truly there, and in my opinion, that's rare. Newman's sure hand guiding this story to its final outcome illustrates, I think, a writer who is at the top of her game. This is a wonderful novel, no matter what the time period. The characters and the plot, as well as the wonderful writing, make this a worthwhile journey back into the past. Not to be missed. Sharan Newman also has a new book out entitled The Real History Behind the Da Vinci Code which is an historian's point of view of Dan Brown's popular novel.

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