There Came a Contagion is part of a lucky streak I hit in the past months—I either have magic fingers or the NetGalley quality has increased in an exponential way, because wow. Color me impressed.
Cover: Hm. It fits the story, but at the same time, it’s not catchy enough. It’s a shame because whether you like it or not, a book with a less-than-catchy cover is bound to attract less attention.
There Came a Contagion is a work of historical literary fiction set in the Territory of Trier, Germany late in the sixteenth century. The reformation is ongoing but the Territory has remained Catholic, ruled by an archbishop who is also a prince and elector of the empire.
The novel tells the story of the Helgen family, three brothers who are respected in their village as skilled and resourceful farmers. With their widowed mother, their wives and children, they build a stable if difficult life together raising rye, barley and swine. In 1570 Elsebett Helgen is born to Basil, the eldest son and his beloved wife Arved, though Arved dies a tragic death shortly after the birth. When Elsebett is eight, she leaves the direct care of her grandmother and begins to live and study with Rachel Mueller, a wisewoman, a midwife and herbal healer.
When the weather turns erratic and harvests begin to fail, a scapegoat is sought. Jews are banished from the Territory as are the followers of Luther and Calvin. The Archbishop then discovers a pestilence of witches: people believed to have forsaken God and sworn allegiance to the Devil. The wise Rachel recognizes that the ever-growing frenzy to expose and kill witches is a contagion of engulfing madness, but she is nearly alone in her understanding. Elsebett’s brother, Johannes, is enthusiastic for the trials; Frans, the young man she is coming to love, works for the Archbishop. Elsebett’s father suspects that some behind the contagion desire the family’s holdings, and insists that the Helgens remain quiet and do nothing to oppose it. Elsebett is twenty when the prosecutors arrive in the village. Before the contagion has burned itself out, more than three-hundred people in the Territory of Trier will have been convicted of witchcraft and burned at the stake. Among them will be Rachel, Elsebett and Katharina, Basil’s second wife.
- There Came a Contagion is the story of the Helgen, a family who lives in Trier, Germany, during the 16th century. The blurb mentioned rye, so I went in thinking about a rather physical ergot infestation. The contagion mentioned in the title is of a subtler kind, though. It’s an emotional one, based on fear, malice, and prejudice.
- What an intriguing plot. It’s simple, per se, but it has many ramifications and subplots, something a less-skilled author would struggle with. Ingold manages to keep the reader’s attention engaged throughout the entire story, never dropping the ball. No loose ties, no plot holes, no logic fallacies. Everything feels realistic, from the story itself to the more technical parts – have a look at the dialogues, for example.
- There are a lot of characters, and Ingold took the time to craft each of them up. Even the side characters feel like real people. The MCs, starting with Elsebett, are tridimensional, and it’s easy to relate to them.
- Forget how I’m always moaning about omniscient POV. Do I still believe it’s the spawn of the devil? Why, yes. Can I appreciate it anyway? Yeah, if done well. Ingold masters it in a flawless way, and I’ve got to say I’m impressed.
- What an excellent historical backdrop. The Middle Age era is well-researched, well-described, and accurate. While I don’t always understand or agree with the characters—an inquisitor shows up with a rack? I’m gone in zero point five, just in case—I can understand their reasons.
- It’s a slow story, especially at the beginning. Slowness doesn’t always equate with a nay, however, as it depends on many variables. In There Came a Contagion, a slow pacing is needed.
- The ending broke my heart.
- There are a couple of grammatical missteps, but nothing major. Given the excellent story, I’m willing to ignore them and not kick the rating down half a star.
5 stars on GR.
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