Book Review – The Kings Inquisitor by Tonya Ulynn Brown

The Kings Inquisitor by Tonya Ulynn Brown opens in December 1590 with James VI and his childhood friend William Broune making their way at dusk through the noisesome streets of Edinburgh in the company of a witch-pricker. In a dank room reeking of evil and cruelty at the Edinburgh’s gaol, the Tollbooth, David Seaton, Deputy Bailiff of Tranent, has been ‘questioning’ Geillis Duncan with pilliwinks and rope to force her to confess to witchcraft. James has come to watch the interrogation. Geillis, a young servant of Seton’s, was one of the many who were believed to have used witchcraft to raise a storm intended to capsize the ship in which James VI and his new bride Anne of Demark had been travelling back to Scotland earlier in the year. James believed the storm was an attempt to kill him and took an intense interest in the questioning of those believed to be involved and in their trials (the North Berwick witch trials) .

James is presented throughout the novel as a rational intelligent person intent on understanding the phenomenon of witchcraft, on understanding whether it is possible for people ‘to have the capabilities to brandish the power of Satan to use for their own interests’ (p.27). At the same time he is fearful of perceived threats to his life and his kingdom from witches using their craft as a road to treason. His longstanding friendship with William Broune has its limits—James never forgets that he is king and expects his wishes to be followed whether it is William accepting the bride chosen for him by the Queen or taking on the role of inquisitor, the legal officer overseeing the trials, a position William would rather not hold.

Also witness to Geillis Duncan’s ‘questioning’ is Ailsa Blackburn, a spirited young woman living with her widowed mother. They are comfortably enough off but living frugally so they can help those less fortunate, Ailsa running, in the street near the Mercat Cross, what would be the sixteenth-century equivalent of a soup kitchen. She wants ensure that Geillis and the others accused are treated fairly. Ailsa’s life is complicated by the fact that Seton has set his sights on her as a wife and has her uncle’s agreement even though Ailsa has not been consulted and sees Seton as ‘the devil personified’.

More scrupulous than his master, William is a reluctant inquisitor, not truly convinced that the accused are witches. Aware of the difference between accusation and guilt, he attempts to ensure that that Scottish legal process, such as it is, is followed. He is also dangerously drawn into Ailsa’s struggle to avoid marriage to the influential Seton.

The novel revolves around Ailsa and William’s fight for the accused witches, each for different reasons. They draw closer to each other as the story progresses and while their developing relationship is a central element, the dangers of the period are never far from mind, with the ever-present possibility that they too could be accused of witchcraft. The darkness at the heart of the witch trials, the atmosphere of fear, menace and mistrust are vividly recreated. Both Thomas and Ailsa are likable characters for whom this reader wanted the best. The story is leavened by their innate decency and the charm and the light humour of many of their verbal exchanges and their interactions.

The Kings Inquisitor brings to life the perverse and dangerous world of the North Berwick witch trials when even well-intentioned persons needed to tread carefully and mind their tongues. Tense, gripping and, in the latter sections, a definite page turner.

The novel is the second book in Tonya Ulynn Brown’s Stuart Monarch series but can be easily read as a standalone novel. I received a pre-publication copy of The Kings Inquisitor from the publisher.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – The Kings Inquisitor by Tonya Ulynn Brown

  1. Reblogged this on The Rose and the Thistle and commented:
    What a wonderful review of The King’s Inquisitor from historical fiction author, Catherine Meyrick. Catherine is so knowledgeable of the 16th century, having written two books set in this time period herself (The Bridled Tongue and Forsaking All Other). This is exactly why, when looking for readers to endorse The King’s Inquisitor, I thought of her.

    Thank you so much, Catherine!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Pingback: My Reading – June 2022 | Catherine Meyrick

  3. Pingback: The King’s Inquisitor by Tonya Ulynn Brown | Catherine Meyrick

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