Thursday, 1 December 2016

Book Review: THE WITCHFINDER'S SISTER by Beth Underdown

The Witchfinder's Sister

Title: The Witchfinder's Sister
Author: Beth Underdown
Publisher: Penguin Books UK
Read: November 2016
Expected publication: 2 March 2017

Synopsis (Goodreads):

Before Salem, there was Manningtree. . . .

This summer, my brother Matthew set himself to killing women, but without ever once breaking the law.
Essex, England, 1645. With a heavy heart, Alice Hopkins returns to the small town she grew up in. Widowed, with child, and without prospects, she is forced to find refuge at the house of her younger brother, Matthew. In the five years she has been gone, the boy she knew has become a man of influence and wealth but more has changed than merely his fortunes. Alice fears that even as the cruel burns of a childhood accident still mark his face, something terrible has scarred Matthew s soul.
There is a new darkness in the town, too frightened whispers are stirring in the streets, and Alice s blood runs cold with dread when she discovers that Matthew is a ruthless hunter of suspected witches. Torn between devotion to her brother and horror at what he s become, Alice is desperate to intervene and deathly afraid of the consequences. But as Matthew s reign of terror spreads, Alice must choose between her safety and her soul.
Alone and surrounded by suspicious eyes, Alice seeks out the fuel firing her brother s brutal mission and is drawn into the Hopkins family s past. There she finds secrets nested within secrets: and at their heart, the poisonous truth. Only by putting her own life and liberty in peril can she defeat this darkest of evils before more innocent women are forced to the gallows.
Inspired by the real-life story of notorious Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins, Beth Underdown s thrilling debut novel blends spellbinding history with harrowing storytelling for a truly haunting reading experience. 

My thoughts:

The Witchfinder’s Sister tackles a fascinating chapter of history, the life of the legendary witch-hunter Matthew Hopkins, who is believed to have been responsible for the deaths of 300 or more women in the mid-1700s in Essex, England. In her fictional account, Underdown bestows Matthew with a sister, Alice Hopkins, a strong and independent woman of her time, who finds herself back in her brother’s house after the sudden death of her husband. I loved the historical details of the novel, which were fascinating and sometimes confronting, as there seemed to be little cause for Matthew to accuse a woman of being a witch and condemn her to death. Alice, suddenly dependent on her brother’s mercy, is caught in a terrible dilemma – can she stand up for the women she thinks unfairly accused without endangering her own life?  

Underdown does a good job in creating an undertone of danger and malice in her descriptions of Matthew’s quest, and Alice’s dilemma is felt keenly by the reader. Personally, I would have liked to be able to explore the folklore and superstitions of the time a bit more, which allowed Matthew to carry out his sinister work. I am guessing that the author purposely steered away from this approach by creating a no-nonsense, intelligent protagonist, but I would have loved to delve a bit deeper into the psyches of the women accused and persecuted, as I found some of the female characters a bit difficult to connect with. Seeing that most women of the time wouldn’t have had much education and would have depended heavily on their menfolk for their survival, it would have been interesting to see their reaction to and feelings about the ever present danger of being accused o f witchcraft. The later part of the book introduces a lot of characters with a lot of different backgrounds and personalities, and I felt myself getting lost in different threads a few times, with some loose ends remaining. Apart from that, The Witchfinder’s Sister was an intriguing and interesting read, recommended to all lovers of historical fiction.  

Thank you to Netgalley and the publisher for providing me with a free electronic copy of this novel in exchange for an honest review. 

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