Rated Reads

The Witchfinder’s Sister

by Beth Underdown

Rated: Moderate

Alice has returned from London, where she’s lived for five years, to her village in eastern England after the death of her husband. Her mother died recently as well, so she has come home to live with the youngest of her brothers, Matthew. It’s hard enough facing life without her husband, without her mother, and without money or possessions of her own, but when she learns her brother is compiling a list of women who are suspected of being witches, she is wary, unnerved and afraid.

The mood in 1645 is one of unrest overall because of a civil war going on in the country, and the setting is just right as Matthew Hopkins (this book is based on a real historical figure who hunted down supposed witches) goes about his plans. Here in this novel, the author creates a fictional sister for him and a background that could explain some of his actions and motivations. Matthew is scarred on parts of his face and arms from an accident in a fire when he was a baby, and he has long been on the outside of things, keeping to himself. But as he compiles his list of witches, he finds “friends” in the powerful men of the area. He also is empowered to go further and further afield to make the list ever larger.

Alice is mourning the loss of her husband and is hoping she will not lose her unborn baby, as she has so many before. She is afraid to reveal her pregnancy because she is already so dependent on her brother. But she feels compelled to try to say something to him to get him to see reason, to stop this horrific business he is bent on continuing. She is sure there’s something in his past, inside of him, that is the reason he is determined to accuse perfectly innocent women and sentence them to death by hanging. As she furtively tries to gather information from her mother-in-law, who was their family’s servant when Matthew was a baby, and try to find out clues from her late father’s journal (kept in her brother’s locked room), she feels she is getting closer to a motive, even as the danger to more women — and herself — ramps up.

The Witchfinder’s Sister creates a portrait of a tortured man through the eyes of his sister. The tension builds slowly until the very end, as secrets are slowly revealed and Alice herself faces retribution for not falling in line with her brother’s orders. While I wasn’t engrossed in the story for much of the book, I did find myself not being able to put it down as I got close to the end.

Rated: Moderate. There are two or three uses of the s-word in its literal meaning and one use of strong language, which I wasn’t expecting and seemed unnecessary and a bit out of place. There is some violence but not much detail. Sexual references have minimal detail.

*I received an advance e-copy of this book from NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

— Reviewed by Cathy Carmode Lim

Cathy Carmode Lim has been reviewing books for newspapers for about 20 years, two of which she was a book page editor. She founded Rated Reads in January 2008.

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  • The Witchfinder’s Sister
  • by Beth Underdown
  • Rated: Moderate
  • Genre: Fiction
  • Reviewer: