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Happy Monday – I am back, back, back again with a non-Sunday, Sunday Book Club in collaboration with Love Books Tours and Helen Steadman who have provided me a free copy of her publication: Widdershins by Helen Steadman in audiobook format, in exchange for an honest review.
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Widdershins is a historical fiction inspired by the Newcastle witch trials of the 1600’s and is book 1 in The Widdershins Series.
This is an adult novel that does come with trigger warnings to keep in mind.
There is reference within the story of violence against women (including sexual violence), child abuse and animal abuse. There are scenes of torture and execution. There are multiple scenes which are detailed so keep that in mind.
Widdershins originally published July 2017 currently averages 3.86 stars on Goodreads based on 317 ratings.
Dr Helen Steadman is a historical novelist. Her first novel, Widdershins and its sequel, Sunwise were inspired by the Newcastle witch trials. Her third novel, The Running Wolf was inspired by a group of Lutheran swordmakers who defected from Germany to England in 1687.
Despite the Newcastle witch trials being the largest mass execution of witches on a single day in England, they are not widely known about. Helen is particularly interested in revealing hidden histories and she is a thorough researcher who goes to great lengths in pursuit of historical accuracy. To get under the skin of the cunning women in Widdershins and Sunwise, Helen trained in herbalism and learned how to identify, grow and harvest plants and then made herbal medicines from bark, seeds, flowers and berries.
The summary reads:
Widdershins is inspired by the Newcastle witch trials, where 16 people were hanged. Despite being the largest mass execution of witches on a single day in England, these trials are not widely known about. In August 1650, 15 women and one man were hanged as witches after a Scottish witch-finder found them guilty of consorting with the devil. This notorious man was hired by the Puritan authorities in response to a petition from the Newcastle townsfolk who wanted to be rid of their witches. Widdershins is told through the eyes of Jane Chandler, a young woman accused of witchcraft, and John Sharpe, the witch-finder who condemns her to death. Jane Chandler is an apprentice healer. From childhood, she and her mother have used herbs to cure the sick. But Jane soon learns that her sheltered life in a small village is not safe from the troubles of the wider world. From his father’s beatings to his uncle’s raging sermons, John Sharpe is beset by bad fortune. Fighting through personal tragedy, he finds his purpose: to become a witch-finder and save innocents from the scourge of witchcraft.
Reviewing Widdershins breaks down into:
Being a historical fiction, the world building is subtly crafted by Steadman. Widdershins tells the tale of a time when religion ruled the land and patriarchy enabled men to demonise clever women. Steadman does a masterful job of blending fact and fiction through the dual narration of John and Jane, starting with their vastly different childhoods.
Jane grows up in Newcastle in the 1600s, learning all about the wonders of herbal knowledge and how women of that time would make use of the land. I particularly love Meg, a knowledgeable old woman who brags about her bartering skills, brings spices from the East and Witch Hazel from the ‘New World’. There is a scene very early on where Meg blames the spread of the plague on rats, not cats as the Puritans would have the World believe. Something that we now know is accurate. It’s this knowledge that put women like Meg in danger, women viewed as cunning by the Church.
Conversely, John grows up abused mercilessly by his Father who blames John for the death of his own Mother who passed away during childbirth. After his Father is found dead, John is placed in the care of his Uncle who while not physically abusive indoctrinates a vulnerable John into dangerous religious thinking. John grows up with his own version of Meg, a woman named Dora. The midwife that brought him into the world and healed the many wounds inflicted onto John by his Father. She is viewed as a Witch of the woods by almost all of the men in the village.
We, the reader, follow these parallels until their paths converge.
I was absolutely fascinated by this story, the style of writing mirrors the time that the story is set in but make take some getting used to for those readers who aren’t from the UK and/or are used to contemporary writing styles. The herbal knowledge littered throughout the narration is a stellar example of the dedication that Steadman put into creating a harrowing story that combines the history and politics of the Witch Hunting craze.
Historical fiction for myself can sometimes be bland and lacking in originality. I don’t feel this way about Widdershins. The way that Steadman takes history and threads her own story within the details to shed light on the biggest mass killing of Witches in the UK blew my mind.
The pace was good. No major issues. The dual narrative kept me on my toes and is one of my fave plot devices especially with two opposing sides within a story. Flitting between each characters story keeps the pace from falling into any dull parts and places the parallels of the two main characters as a focal point for the reader.
Starting with these characters in childhood takes us on a journey that is heart-wrenching. Seeing John rapidly grow from a sweet but unfortunate boy who was widely mistreated into a relentless Witch Hunter made for a painfully good story.
This is not a story with action packed on every chapter but every chapter is important to build the narrative of how religious mania gripped the lives of these characters, forcing trajectory of their lives.
I loved that with the audio book I could adjust the speed to speed up the pace a little to my preferred listening.
The romantic pairings in this story are very much direct opposites and yet both break my heart. I don’t want to spoil them but I could waffle on about these pairings.
Poor John’s wife falls victim to John’s frustration and rage in his desperate attempt to conceive a child as a means to validate his manhood. Having spent years raised in the tight grip of his Uncle, John is of the misguided understanding that his fertility issues are a result of his wife’s sins. Hearing the narration from his perspective makes this very difficult to digest as we, the reader, get a direct view into his thinking.
Jane and her lover deserve better. What a pair of sweethearts. Oh and that Beltane night – beautifully written.
I was blown away by how brilliantly crafted Widdershins is. The narrator, Christine Mackie, did a stellar job and I loved listening to her. This is the first story I’ve read this year that I am happy to give a full 5 star rating to.
This is a story that will stick with you. It is a fictional tale in characters alone; the setting, the witch hunts and even the herbal remedies are all based in fact and history. Widdershins is a reminder of the trauma that puritan notions wreaked on women who only ever meant to heal, care and support their villages. It’s an unsettling read to be reminded of the sufferings that the women before us lived through but Steadman has shown her talents and skill here.
I cannot recommend this enough.
I think that for lovers of Witch Trials and stories like Madeline Miller’s Circe, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible or Deborah Harkness’ A Discovery of Witches then Widdershins should be added to your TBR.
Thank you to Helen & Kelly, from Lovebookstours, for sending me a copy; it was an incredible story to listen to!
Widdershins can be purchased here in print, ebook or audiobook format.
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