It is 1660 in the German town of Schongau, and a small boy has just been murdered and left with a strange tattoo on his body. The townsfolk still remember the witchcraft scare years before, and tension quickly builds as other children are killed. Fingers start pointing to the local midwife and herbalist, but the executioner Jakob Kuisl, a feared man considered dishonorable, believes there is something more going on. He reluctantly teams up with the local physician’s son, Simon, to solve the mystery. Meanwhile, his daughter does some investigating of her own on the side…
This book keeps you on the edge, always throwing in more mysteries and more clues, and filled with complex characters. Jakob himself is often gruff and unapproachable, a veritable Sherlock Holmes complete with pipe and obscure knowledge no one else seems to have. Despite it all, we get glimpses into a fiercely caring side. He’s protective of his daughter and seems almost condescendingly fond of the townspeople who treat him with contempt. Simon is intensely curious, easily frustrated with his own father and their superstitious patients.
The biggest disappointment is the fact that the book purports to be about Jakob’s daughter Magdalena, who is supposed to be intelligent and useful. However, she mainly stumbles onto answers while getting herself in trouble, and spends much of her time whining over how she and Simon can’t be together. All in all she behaves very immaturely for a 21-year-old, especially one living in a time where children must grow up very fast. (Luckily this starts changing in the second book.)
However, overall the book is wonderful, with a detailed look into the culture of the time. Many things we take for granted today were considered nonsense. (At one point Simon reads a book in which the author postulates about “small living beings” being the cause of disease. I’ve yet to find out if there was such a theory at the time or if it’s the author’s fanciful addition.)
The author has done his research, and that’s because he is descended from the real-life Kuisl family. The book is even better when considered as the author’s defense of his ancestors.