Bitter Magic

Nancy Hayes Kilgore


Bitter Magic, inspired by the true story of Isobel Gowdie and her witchcraft confession, reveals a little-known corner of history—the lives of both pagan and Protestant women in the Scottish Reformation...

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Bitter Magic, inspired by the true story of Isobel Gowdie and her witchcraft confession, reveals a little-known corner of history—the lives of both pagan and Protestant women in the Scottish Reformation of the 1600s as witch trials and executions threatened their lives, values, and beliefs.

The story is told by Isobel herself and also by Margaret Hay, a fictionalized seventeen-year-old noble woman. When Margaret stumbles across Isobel one day, it seems as though Isobel is commanding the dolphins in the ocean to dance. Margaret is enchanted. She becomes interested in Isobel’s magic, in fairies, and in herbal remedies; Isobel freely shares her knowledge. While Margaret worries that being around Isobel could be dangerous, she also respects Isobel’s medical successes and comes to believe that acknowledging the efficacy of herbal remedies or believing in fairies does not challenge her Christianity.

But Isobel believes in more than cheery fairies and herbal medicine. She has dark wishes as well, unknown to most people. Isobel seeks vengeance against the local lord who executed her mother for witchcraft. More important, Isobel’s trance experiences (or are they dreams?) lead her to confess to a wide range of sins, including consorting with the devil. Then, during her trial, Isobel names thirteen others, calling them all witches. To her great shock, Margaret hears her own name. Can her tutor, a Christian mystic named Katharine, save them?

by Nancy Hayes Kilgore
Page Count: 276
Trim Size: 6 x 9
Publish Date: August 10, 2021
Imprint: Milford House
Genre: Historical Fiction

FICTION / Historical / General
FICTION / Literary
FICTION / Romance / Paranormal / Witches


"Life in 17th-century Scotland is well-penned, including its landscape, local beliefs, social dynamics, and songs and rhymes. The plot and characters are immersive and compelling...This is a fascinating blurring of the lines between superstition, reality, and belief." -- Historical Novel Society

"Ample details about the religious and political landscape of 1660s Scotland enliven the text, including around the struggle for dominance between Catholics and Protestants, and the emerging importance of rationality in religious discourse... Though Isobel’s actual fate is unknown, Bitter Magic concludes with a satisfying blend of hopefulness and realism, and with a helpful author’s note that separates fact from fiction. The result is an entertaining historical novel in which magic meets with the dark realities of those who wished to suppress it." -- Foreword Reviews

"The dialogue is compelling, and the sense of place and time hangs heavy. Kilgore captures the dismal subsistence of the peasants, the pall of religious fervor, the new search for rationality, and the sorry plight of women...A significant, accurate portrayal of a dour 1660s Scotland." -- Kirkus Reviews

"The injustice of the time, both toward women and between classes, is vividly portrayed. The book is densely written, but will reward dedicated readers with an immersive ringside seat to the witch trials of seventeenth-century Scotland.” --Booklist 

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Customer Reviews

Based on 1 review
Kate Blair
Fascinating and Educational

This entertaining and well-researched tale of 17th century Scottish “cunning women” and the high and low societies in which they practiced, transports the reader on a magical mix of truth and imagination, not unlike the cunning women’s broomsticks. The extensive author’s notes at the end of the book, including biographies of the real people informing the characters, satisfies an historical fiction fan’s curiosity, while the author’s enthralling plotline enchants. I look forward to reading Nancy Kilgore’s other two books, Wild Mountain, and Sea Level.