Monday, May 22, 2017

The Witchfinder's Sister by Beth Underdown

If you're a long time follower of the Bookalicious Babe, well...you know I have a soft spot for witches.  As in I read a heck of a lot of fiction that features witches.  I believe the first actual "paper" I wrote for school in 8th grade was all about the Salem witch trials.  

Yes, I wrote a paper about the Salem witch trials and I attended a private Catholic school. And it was 1980. Oops. I don't even remember what I wrote about, but I'm pretty sure I played it safe and just regurgitated what my library books put down as history. I'm pretty sure my opinion today would have gotten me a trip to the principal's office and a grounding at home.  It's obvious my interest in witches has been around for a very long time, so when I saw this title on Goodreads I had to request it from the library.  

I knew this novel was going to be a bit heavy, so I kept putting off reading it.  I finally dived in this past week, not knowing quite what to expect.  It takes place in Essex, England in 1645.  Alice Hopkins is returning home to the small village of Manningtree after her husband dies in a shooting incident in London.  She is a few months pregnant, broke, and the only family left in England is her younger brother, Matthew Hopkins.  They haven't seen each other for five years; she married a servant's son, and Matthew was, to put in today's terms, pissed.  Meanwhile their mother (Alice's step-mother) has died, and Alice hasn't told Matthew her husband is dead, too.  She's had five miscarriages and doesn't want to even think about her current pregnancy for fear of losing it, too.  So she keeps mum about it, hoping to reveal it when she's farther along and closer to her due date.  

Matthew Hopkins has grown up and prospered since Alice left.  He owns an inn, where Alice comes to stay.  He's grown a beard to hid the awful scars on his face and neck that resulted from falling into a fire when he was a baby.  The exact how of that incident has never been explained; but a wet nurse was blamed and lost her job over it.  

Oh--did I mention that Matthew is a witchfinder?  

What starts out as a few people taking revenge on women in the village soon spreads across England, with people accusing pretty much anyone that looked different, lived alone, was poor, or involved in the healing arts.  It was not a time to have any enemies.  Matthew would travel to other villages by horse with a female servant, and spend hours questioning  and examining women under very cruel conditions until they broke and told him what he wanted to hear.  The women were then taken to the gaol, to await trial.  Usually, in times past, the women would be let off after a few months.  But this time, the atmosphere in England was different, and people were out for blood.  

Alice's mother-in-law Bridget had worked for the family when Alice and Matthew were younger.  Matthew doesn't like Bridget (for reasons you will find out as the story unfolds), and Alice is terrified Bridget will be on Matthew's list of potential witches.  She challenges Matthew on his path of destruction, but realizes he's got the bug, and is not one to be challenged.  Matthew is a man with a mission and plenty of zeal.  He's not a fan of women.  

The plot moves fairly slowly; not a whole lot happens over the course of the book.  But, that slowness of plot gives you ample time to feel the dread building as the witch hunts intensify and Matthew grows further apart from Alice.  Family secrets, the real story behind Matthew's childhood accident, and the political atmosphere of England at the time make for one unsettling book.  When you can't trust anyone around you, and you can't trust anything to be real...just what do you do to save yourself? Can Alice save anyone else?

I thought there would be more movement in the book, but I'm not unhappy with the story.  It was actually pretty good, and had a few twists.  You'll be saying "Girrrl....you go Alice!" as she starts to grow a spine and stand up to Matthew---at her own peril.  

If you're a fan of witchy fiction, you'll want to read this.  Matthew Hopkins was an actual witchfinder in England, but that's about all that is factual in this novel. Not a nice man!

Rating:  3/6 for a historical novel set in the midst of England's witch hysteria, with an unsettling atmosphere that will keep you reading even when you dread what's coming next. 

Available in hardcover and ebook. 


  1. Sounds like an interesting read. I'm not as into witches, but I do like some good historical fiction. Have you read A Taste for Nightshade? No supernatural twist, but it was a really good read.

    1. The Witchfinder's Sister is more about the lack of power women had in 1645 England; lack of choices and pretty much at the mercy of men. Of course, the sad part is there were no witches, just a lot of false accusations for petty revenge against imagined slights and disasters that were purely of a natural kind.

  2. Yours is the second blogger review I have read. It sounds quite interesting and a bit heavy.