Book Review: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown

313773003 out of 5 Stars

I don’t tend to read a lot of historical fiction, but this book caught my eye as I was perusing the aisles at my local library. The cover was intriguing and, with the weather getting colder, it seemed like an excellent autumn read 🙂

The Set-Up

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 Take?

I admit that I had some trouble rating this one.

There were many aspects of this novel that I absolutely loved, beginning with the entire premise. The novel follows the experiences of the fictional sister of Matthew Hopkins, a real life witchfinder who is responsible for the deaths of over 100 women in England during the 1600s. The historical elements of the novel were both thrilling and disturbing. Excerpts from sources from the time period are included throughout the novel, adding to the horrifying nature of the book. Though several of the characters are fictitious, many of the women mentioned throughout the plot were actually subjected to the tortures mentioned and hung for their supposed crimes.

But although the story was inspired by true events, there was also an excellent element of magical realism. Several spine-tingling scenes hinted at otherworldly experiences, dark and shadowy creatures and knowledge of ritualistic practices that may or may not have caused harm to others. Underdown did an excellent job mixing realistic elements with the fantastic, leaving readers wondering if the “witchcraft” is all in the head of the narrator or if there’s something more at hand.

Despite the fact that there were many things I loved about this novel, I had to force myself to finish it. The plot speeds by in some sections but then slows down to a snail’s pace. I also had some severe issues with Alice, the narrator. Alice plays a bystander in her own story which, although likely realistic for the behavior of a woman of her station in that time period, was extremely frustrating as a reader. I kept hoping she would take a stand or make any move to stop the horrible events around her, but her story arc felt like one long, drawn-out train wreck.

Overall I did enjoy the book and give it 3 out of 5 stars. If you can make it through the tedious parts, the ending is absolutely spectacular, though I admit that I did see it coming. If you enjoy historical fiction and don’t mind a slow plot, give this novel a try 🙂

Happy Reading!

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