- Title And Author: The Witchfinder’s Sister by Beth Underdown
- Publisher: Penguin
- Physical, eBook or Audiobook: Audiobook
- Bought, Borrowed or Gifted: Borrowed from Essex Libraries via BorrowBox
- Length: 368 Pages or 10 Hours 54 Minutes
Now, this is a bit of a curveball as historical fiction isn’t my jam. But I requested this from NetGalley AGES ago (yes, it’s an eProof and I am surprise behind on them!) and I’ve been going “I will read this one day… one day…”. Then I saw this on my Library Audiobook app and went “Why Not? I can pop this as one of my Murder Month reads” as, for a reason I’m not 100% certain on why, this book is classed as crime and thriller. So, I’m not sure to pop this in my Murder Month or not… So, it’s going up now!
Before the famous Salem Witch Hunts happened in the US, the UK had the Essex Witch Trials, spearheaded by the Witchfinder General, Matthew Hopkins. When his sister, Alice, is forced to return to the small Essex home in Manningtree after the tragic death of his husband, she hopes for safety, love and support. But home is no longer a place of safety. Matthew has changed from their last meeting and whispers follow him now. Whispers of witchcraft and whispers of a book he owns, a book where he is gathering women names… As Matthew’s obsession grows, so does the creeping dread Alice feels… How far is Matthew’s obsession going to go? And what choice will Alice make to save herself?
As someone who isn’t the biggest historical fiction reader, I did like this. I’m a little surprise that I did like it as much as I did. But I am going to admit it here, this book is flawed. It isn’t perfect, but once it hits its stride, it does make gripping listening.
Ok, let’s start with the negative - I know, this is an odd place to start, but I want to point one or two things out that I didn’t warm to. The first is the start is a little slow to find its footing. I get why - we need to understand why Alice returns to Manningtree and why she stays with Matthew, even though she knows that something is terribly wrong - but it does feel like it takes a while before the story finds its footing. And when it does, the writing sometimes tends to wander. Again, I get why - as we discover within the very first chapter, Alice is locked in a room and she only has writing the account of her stay in Manningtree to keep her going - but I wish, at times, the writing was a little tighter in its storytelling.
But, saying that, I do things this book has a ton of positives. Once this story does find its footing and its stride, this story becomes a slow burn of a thriller between Alice and Matthew. Alice can see that the villages and towns in Essex believe that witches live among them and the fear and speculation slowly growing and while this is happening, you sense the fear of Alice of Matthew, who seems to be enjoying the fear and the power he has, not of finding the witches, but the power he has over Alice herself, and you are rooting for Alice to get out or to somehow get control over the situation, though we know that in 1645, this is highly unlikely, and you empathise with Alice because of the limits of her choices.
Plus, as this is a fictional account of the Witchfinder General, it’s interesting to see where fact and fiction blur. Though, this is very accessible and, as the author notes, she did have to take some liberties with some of the characters did and some of the events that happen.
I know the TV rights to this book have been sold and I do think this will be a really interesting TV series, but I do hope that when it does get made, it keeps the slow burning fear and tension. I want to watch this with fear, not because of the witch hunts, but of Alice and Matthew. I want to be scared that every times Alice looks into their mother’s death or the mystery around Matthew’s birth or even her trying to talk Matthew down (and failing) from his witch hunts. I want to terrified and root for her for all the choices - good and bad - that she makes!
I am very intrigued to see what Beth Underdown writes next. (Plus, I just want to say I really don't like the updated cover. I see why Penguin did, but I much prefer the original cover.)