As someone with a deep interest in the history of witches and the magic/science of herblore, this book was a must-read for me! It’s my stop on the blog tour today, and I’m so glad to be able to talk to you about Sunwise (and the first book in the series, Widdershins).
Book: Sunwise by Helen Steadman
Read before: No
Ownership: Review copy of Sunwise sent free of charge. I purchased my own e-copy of Widdershins to catch up with the series. All opinions my own.
Firstly, this is very much the second book in the series, and you need to read Widdershins first to understand what’s going on! We follow the same two viewpoint characters, Jane Chandler and John Sharpe. Jane is a young woman who lives in a small English village and is learning herbal medicine from her mother, and John is a Scottish man whose life has been influenced by a mother who died giving birth to him, a father who very much blamed him, and his deeply religious uncle. Over the course of the first book, Jane’s story focuses on her family drama, and John’s on his growing hatred of witches, until the two stories become entangled in a brutal way. This second book deals with the fallout of the first book, so I definitely recommend reading them in order.
The writing in both books is wonderful. It grabs you and doesn’t let you go until the very end. Jane and John have very different voices, and they were both incredibly compelling to read about: Jane because she is so sympathetic, and John because his mind is so fascinating. It’s incredible to watch his descent into madness, from the pitiful, lonely boy you meet at the beginning of Widdershins to a hate-filled, overly zealous witchfinder. The countryside setting is very vivid, especially in Jane’s sections, and the minutiae of both characters’ lives makes it clear that there is a lot of research ticking away behind the scenes. I particularly loved seeing how Christianity slotted in and around the more pagan traditions – it seems to be a very comfortable combination in Jane’s village, with harvest festivals and Imbolc rituals all as much a part of daily life as going to church on Sundays.
As you may know if you’re a regular reader of my reviews, I’m super into herblore (that is just one of my shelves of herbals and hedgewitch books in the photo above!). I was very impressed with the use of herbs in this book, and loved the distinction that was drawn between superstition and science – one of the male characters outright states at one point that Jane’s skills are medicine, not magic. I believe that there was no magic in historical witchcraft, just use of natural medicine and common sense, and Jane is definitely my type of witch! She’s a pillar of her community, providing practical help and a willing ear to the women of her village, and this serves to highlight just how inhumane John Sharpe’s witch-hunts are.
Speaking of that inhumanity: in places, there are some extremely disturbing scenes, and I definitely wouldn’t say this was a cheerful read. There should probably be trigger warnings for self-harm, sexual assault, graphic murder of children, and general hatred of women (if you can think of a way that women could be abused, it’s somewhere in here). It’s an unflinching look at the reality of the witch hunts, and also of the struggles of women in the 17th century, but it may be too much for some readers. I found it utterly compelling, as a lot of the grim bits are part of John’s zealotry, and it’s gripping in kind of a horrifying way (almost We Need To Talk About Kevin-y). Though Jane has a lot of agency in her story, I did find the end of the novel (historically accurately) patriarchal, and was a little disappointed for her that in the end it was men’s actions that had the most impact on the climax of the story. However, this is perfectly consistent with the story, so please don’t take it as a negative, just a comment on the terrible things women had to face!
Overall, this is a deeply compelling and fascinating read that should appeal to those with no knowledge of the witch trials, as well as those with an interest in historical witchcraft. It’s very well-written, and I’m so glad to have had the chance to read it! Five out of five cats from me.