In my ongoing search to find speculative fiction of quality written in Dutch I recently came across the small publisher Books of Fantasy, it appears to be an offshoot of Pure Fantasy Magazine, one of the few magazines in the Netherlands dedicated to short form science fiction, fantasy and horror. Their catalogue offers a number of interesting titles. I picked Bianca Mastenbroek's début novel Vuurproef based on a short story by Mastenbroek I read a while ago in the collection Time Out. Her story Versteend Verlangen was one of the stories that impressed me in that collection. Vuurproef turns out to be something of an odd duck in the Books of Fantasy collection. It is a historical novel dealing with a witchcraft trial, without any fantasy elements added to is.The title of the novel translates as "Ordeal by Fire", one of the methods used to determine someone's guilt. By the time this story is set the practice had been abolished but it does make an effective title.
Vuurproef is set in Heezop, a (fictional) town in what is today the Dutch province of Noord-Brabant, in the year 1595. A new Lord by the name of Vaillant has recently taken over control of the region. Influenced by his new legal advisor Master Fabri, Vaillant has placed the extermination of witchcraft high on his agenda. His campaign is not without results, at the opening of the book Anna van Asten, the main character of the book, is forced to witness the burning at the stake of Heezop's first witch. A poor old woman named Jenneke de Grauw. Generally disliked, the village is glad to be rid of her. Anna argues that this does not make her a witch but Vaillant and Fabri claim to have obtained a confession.
Anna's sharp tongue and her questioning of Lord Vaillant's actions soon turn against her. Women are not supposed to be that outspoken. Anna has learned to think for herself, she can even read and write, hardly the image of an obedient and god fearing wife. In short, in Lord Vaillant's eyes she is a prime suspect. Anna finds herself accused of witchcraft and arrested by Vaillant's men. To her astonishment and that of her husband Henck, the village is willing to testify against her. While Anna faces Vaillant's questioning, Henck embarks on a mission to save his wife from a fiery death at the stake.
The events Mastenbroek describes are based on a series of witch trails held in 1595 in the town of Asten (note the main characters last name). Names and places have been changed though. The town of Heezop, as far as I know, does not exist. The name appears to be a combination of Heeze and Geldrop, two towns in the region. Lord Vaillant is not a historical figure either but it does not take too much imagination to figure out who he is based on. The process of a witch trail is described in detail in this book and that is probably where the most historical material is added. It clashes violently with our own sense of justice but many involved in such trails back then probably genuinely believed what they were involved in was justice and not a lynching. Many but not all, the author does hint at possible ulterior motives in several chapters. This view into the trail itself was one of the most interesting aspects of the book for me.
Part of the procedure is of course the interrogation of the witness. In particular the painful examination. Mastenbroek gives a number of detailed descriptions of how one went about obtaining a confession in those days. She does not go to the extremes we sometimes encounter in fantasy (I'm thinking Goodkind here for one), but the degrading and excruciatingly painful scenes can be pretty horrific nonetheless. She manages to evoke this reaction without resorting to gory details but focusses on the successive phases of desperation, determination and hope of the main character instead. A very fine piece of writing.
The author alternates chapters seen from the point of view of various characters in the story with brief glances at the life of Anna's daughter Jutta. She is torn between fear and disbelief as the evidence mounts against her mother. Brief snippets of Jutta's writing add a very distinct and at times touching perspective to the overall story. She writes this in a (psuedo?) old fashioned spelling of Dutch. I'm not sure if this is entirely necessary but it does have a nice effect. Unfortunately she drops the style in a letter Anna has written to her husband towards the end of the book. It would have been a pain to write the entire letter in the style she uses for Jutta but it would have been consistent.
There are two things I would like to have seen in this novel that would have lifted it from very good to excellent in my opinion. The first is a bit more insight into the motivation of the main villain in the book Valliant. He is mostly portrayed as sexist, impatient, cruel and perhaps a bit perverted. Mastenbroek hints at a failed relationship with a woman that fires his current rage. We never find out exactly how or why this woman angered him enough to take it out on the local population. As a result Lord Vaillant remains a bit one dimensional. He is clearly the villain of the tale without any redeeming characteristics. Another question that remains is how he came under the influence of Master Fabri. He's quite a shady figure, the dynamics of his relationship with Vaillant could have been interesting.
The second point is somewhat related and has to do with the point at which Mastenbroek opens the story. Right at the beginning of the we witness the execution of the first witch in Heezop. At this point a lot must already have happened inside this relatively small community. These people have known and tolerated each other their entire life yet they choose to execute one of their own. The question of how a community gets caught up in mass hysteria is one that the author does not explore at all. We get to see how they, in all practical terms, ostracise the van Asten family but at that point the process is well under way.
Vuurproef is a dark book, given the theme it could hardly be otherwise. The author is taken a piece of local history and turned it into a tale of desperation, hope and love. As with the previous short story I was impressed with Mastenbroek's writing (just go easy on the exclamation mark) and characterization. There is room for improvement but Vuurproef is a very good first novel by a promising author. I'm looking forward to reading more of her work, short for or long, in the future.
Author: Bianca Mastenbroek
Publisher: Books of Fantasy
First published: 2008