Reading Group Guide
A mysterious pond in the woods that terrifies and intrigues; a lady possessed by devils; an alchemist who conjures items from the past to help secure the future . . . Judith Merkle Riley’s The Water Devil contains many fascinating themes that are perfect for discussion. This guide is designed to help direct your reading group’s conversation about this last novel in Riley’s mystical Margaret of Ashbury trilogy.
1. “When you think of wars and high talk, Margaret, remember it’s all really a matter of money” (page 4). Talk about the role of wealth (and lack thereof) in the novel. How important is money in The Water Devil?
2. Margaret, Brother Malachi, and Mother Hilde all inhabit a spiritual world that is in juxtaposition with organized religion–what did you think of this, and how do you think the two ways of life are compatible?
3. Consider Margaret’s special gift of healing powers. After Lady Petronilla kidnaps young Peregrine and throws him into the pond, Margaret and the boy nearly drown as Margaret attempts to pull him from the water, and Peregrine hovers near death for days afterward. Why wasn’t Margaret able to employ her skills to help her son?
4. What did you think of Sir Hubert? Did your opinion of him change as you read The Water Devil? What did you think Madame Agathe found attractive about him?
5. Margaret speaks with God, who tells her, “Margaret, for every person who prays for love and peace, there are a half-dozen who pray for war and glory” (page 14). Why would God say such a thing?
6. Sir Roger, the town priest, muses to himself, “Rumors of diabolical pleasure, supernatural beings, succubuses hot with desire–matters were getting out of control. The pond thing would debauch the entire parish if something were not done, and soon” (page 62). Discuss the roles of Christianity, superstition, and pre-Christian paganism in The Water Devil. Why were the townspeople so fascinated by and fearful of the pond and the spirit that inhabited it? Who were some of the characters who weren’t afraid of the pond and its occupant? Why weren’t they scared?
7. Discuss Gilbert’s near-death experience (pages 25-28). How does this experience change him?
8. At the behest of Gilbert, with wary approval from Margaret, their daughters Alison and Cecily are taught the ways of becoming a “gentlelady” by Madame Agathe. What is Madame’s definition of a “lady?” Which character in the novel best fits it?
9. Discuss Lady Petronilla. Was she truly insane, or was there a method to her madness? If the latter, what do you think she was trying to gain by pretending to be possessed by devils?
10. In Chapter 7 (pages 60-64), Hugh the swineherd encounters the succubus and is seduced by her. Did you think there really was a succubus, or did you realize it was Lady Petronilla? Hugo speaks longingly of encountering a succubus, and attempts to do so: “They say there’s a succubus off at the pond. I’m off to hunt her up” (page 143). For such a dangerous creature, why did men in The Water Devil find a succubus so appealing?Discuss Lady Petronilla. Was she truly insane, or was there a method to her madness? If the latter, what do you think she was trying to gain by pretending to be possessed by devils?
11. What did you think of Brother Malachi and his practice of alchemy? Did you think the scheme he concocted to help Sir Hubert regain his land would work?
12. There are many memorable, even eccentric, characters in The Water Devil. Who do you think were some of the most interesting? Why?
13. The Water Devil offers many plot twists, especially near its conclusion. Which ones took you by surprise? Why? Were there any that you predicted? If so, what were some clues?