It has taken me a while to figure out how I wanted to review this book. I actually read a whole other book while trying to figure out how I really felt about it. The main thing that my deliberations came down to was that it is a very good book… It just wasn’t really the book I was looking for when I started it.
Based on the title and they synopsis blurb I was under the impression this was a story where the titular daughter would really be a main character, the protagonist who moved things along. The reality is she’s a much more secondary character, really she doesn’t have much to do with the plot at all until the end, and even then in a mostly victim role. When I decided to start up the book I was looking for more of a female-centric kind of story. While this one has feminine elements, I wouldn’t call it female-centric by any stretch.
The actual protagonists are the Daughter’s father Jakob and the town doctor’s son Simon (also an apprentice doctor of sorts) who is sweet on Magdalena (the daughter). Jakob is the Hangman of the small village of Shongau in Bavaria and as such is respected yet also shunned by most of the populace. This is the main issue behind Simon and Magdalena wanting to get together- she’s also considered “unclean” in the eyes of the rest of the populace, so they would likely end up as outcasts pretty much anywhere they went. Simon, being moderately educated and more interested in science than gossip has come to really like the Kusil family, and even see Jakob as a kind of mentor, as they are also well know as healers in the area, along with the local Midwife.
When a child turns up dead in the nearby river with a “witch’s mark” on his shoulder all hell breaks loose with many of the prominent town members jumping to the conclusion that he is dead thanks to a spell cast by the Midwife. This causes all kinds of chaos and fear mongering, and in order to stop a wide-spread panic, which would almost certainly end with large scale, bloody, mostly unjustified Witch Burnings, Jakob and Simon set out to figure out who is really killing the children of the town before the Magistrates arrive.
It’s a good story, Jakob and Simon are great characters and the plot is good with enough history to be interesting, but not so much that it gets in the way. There is a lot of exploring what having a career that involves almost exclusively torturing and killing people for the State does to a man’s mind and conscience, which makes Jakob a really amazing character. I really like him a lot and will probably read the following book in the series just to see what happens to him. The mystery is well played out and believable, and while villains in the town can get a little cartoon-y at times, sometimes people really are that obvious with their intentions; especially people who are very used to getting their way without much of a fight.
This is where I started to get discouraged. It is a story about these two men and most often about them dealing with the other men in the town. To be perfectly honest, while Magdalena is obviously smart and interesting she spends most of the book playing the coquette with Simon, whining to her father about not wanting to marry the Hangman three towns over, and grinding herbs into powders. She is in no way the protagonist, or even really a key player for 90% of the book. In fact several times when she’s “helping” she kind of makes things worse. Again, this doesn’t make it a bad book, in fact I very much enjoyed the book. It was a badly advertised book. I would sort of compare it to how Crimson Peak, a really gorgeous, Gothic romance was marketed as a jump-scare ghost story and that caused a lot of folks to not like it. That was me with this book. Once I could take a step back and remove my expectations, I really liked it. Unfortunately those expectations kind of made me take a lot longer to get there than I might normally have.
This is the first in a series, and who knows, maybe Magdalena’s character comes into her own and she does become more of a central character. As it was, though, at the end of the first book I know way more about what Simon thinks of the cut of her bodice than I do about what is really inside her head.