The Spellbook of Katrina Van Tassel by Alyssa Palombo (Historical Fantasy Novel, October 2018).
This involving novel takes “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Washington Irving’s classic short story of love, jealousy and the supernatural, and simultaneously expands and re-imagines it with Katrina as the central character. As in the original, Katrina becomes the unwitting focal point of a rivalry between rich and arrogant local Brom Van Blunt and newly arrived schoolteacher Ichabod Crane. But here she is a fully fleshed-out character with her own ideas, opinions and inner life–rather than a merely marriageable prize for the two men to fight over.
This Katrina is well-read and intelligent, a born storyteller, as well as well-versed in the running of a successful farm. She’s definitely a believable product of her times, but as strong and independent-minded as her tradition-bound environment would allow. As such, she is by intent an early feminist figure (as the author makes clear in the book’s afterword).
Katrina, her best friend Charlotte, and Brom grew up together. They were great friends, until Charlotte (daughter of the village healer/wise woman and herself endowed with the ability to enter a trance-like state for glimpses of the future) makes a frightening prediction of Brom’s fate. It was to have something to do with the Headless Horseman, the area’s most famous supernatural boogie-man. In a panic, Brom denounced Charlotte as a witch, leading her to be ostracized by most of the community.
That put an abrupt stop to Katrina’s affection for Brom, but he remained obsessed with her. Now a grown-but-still-childish man, he is determined to marry her: by force, if necessary. Then bookish yet handsome Ichabod comes to town. He and Katrina find connections in their shared love of books and music. They bond emotionally and even begin a secret love affair that eventually includes some tastefully erotic encounters.
Brom grows increasingly angry and suspicious. Katrina’s well-meaning but conventionally-minded father encourages Brom to keep trying to woo Katrina (merging the two farming families in marriage would be a benefit, and he has no clue as to what lengths Brom will stoop to get what he desires). Meanwhile, Katrina begins to manifest paranormal abilities of her own. Fragmentary visions warn of violence and heartbreak to come.
Another hint of the terrors to be is a secret duel that Brom forces on Ichabod, resulting in Crane’s non-fatal wounding. The ease at which this illegal act is kept secret was the one element in an otherwise compelling plot that I didn’t quite buy.
But then the schoolteacher disappears on Halloween Night. Has the legendary Headless Horseman struck, or is there another explanation? In any case, Katrina is left heartbroken and secretly pregnant. Faithful Charlotte helps her seek the truth with risky magical means. Meanwhile, her family’s urging (and her own need to secure the welfare of her unborn child) leads to Katrina swallowing her pride and becoming smugly entitled Brom’s bride.
The story won’t end there, of course. The terrible truth of what happened to her true love will eventually be uncovered. The decidedly real Headless Horseman will show up to avenge his good, if fearful, name on the person who dared act in his stead. And finally, Katrina, secure on her own terms, will make a kind of peace with herself and with the loving memory (and ghostly presence) of Ichabod.
Overall, this book is a fine historical dark fantasy and a more-than-worthy modern take on a classic tale of early America.