The Revels by Stacey Thomas: explores how deeply-held religious beliefs fed into the fear of witchcraft – book review –

The Revels by Stacey Thomas:  book reviewThe Revels by Stacey Thomas:  book review
The Revels by Stacey Thomas:  book review
‘I am no witch... I have not sold my soul to the Devil for powers. What I am has never openly been whispered of, yet it is enough that people would hang for it.’

In 1645, England was a country torn apart by escalating tensions between Catholics and Protestants, and a bitter civil war pitting Parliamentary forces against the Royalists who supported King Charles I.

But just as deadly were the suspicions, fears and rumours that abounded about the evil powers of witchcraft. And in a land already notorious for its witch trials, one young man must carefully guard his dark secret... an ability to communicate with the dead.

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Welcome to the thrilling and atmospheric world of 17th century England conjured up by debut historical novelist Stacey Thomas, an exciting new author who was awarded the Clare Mackintosh Scholarship for Black Writers and was one of the three winners of HarperCollins’s 2021 inaugural Killing It Competition for Undiscovered Writers.

Thomas, who was inspired to pen The Revels by her research into in King James I’s unhealthy obsession with witchcraft and demonology, adds an inventive twist, and an alluring thread of supernatural, to a period of history that was steeped in political upheaval, superstition and religious bigotry.

The result is a chilling and thrilling rollercoaster journey into the life and loves of aspiring young playwright Nicholas Pearce who is apprenticed to a former witch-hunter and faces the moral dilemma of heeding the voices of the dead... or ignoring them and failing to save other innocents.

When his half-brother Francis dies fighting for the Royalist cause – much to the dismay and chagrin of their wealthy merchant father – 17-year-old Nicholas Pearce is forced to give up his hopes of becoming a playwright and is instead apprenticed to assizes Judge William (Will) Percival.

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Although witch-hunting was abolished by King James I nearly twenty years ago, there are still influential men who believe that women who seek too much independence, power and influence are witches and Parliament, which is currently waging war on King Charles, feels duty-bound to enforce England’s religious beliefs.

For Nicholas – now heir to the Pearce family fortune – the rising political tensions and the desire of the old witch-hunters to see off the Devil in his many forms, bring a danger that he has always tried to keep hidden... his gift of hearing the ‘almost musical’ voices of the dead.

When the dead ‘sing,’ their refrain pulls at his insides as though he is ‘unplied yarn,’ achieved only through ‘knot magic,’ a power regarded as the most potent and abhorrent in witchcraft. It’s a gift that would see Nicholas hanged for witchcraft and so he must bear, unshared, the burden of the dead’s testimonies.

On a trip to the York Assizes, Judge Percival and Nicholas are hosted by the city’s Lord Mayor and his daughter Althamia, a strong-willed young woman who has an interest in healing and taxidermy, and has set her sights on becoming a physician, an ambition that leaves her wide open to accusations of witchcraft.

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As the spark between Nicholas and Althamia ignites, and Will Percival finally bows to the pressure to resume his old profession of witch-hunting, Nicholas cannot help but hear the terrible testimonies of the condemned witches. Will he find the courage to speak up and save innocent lives... even if it means putting himself in great danger?

Like the ‘witch knots’ that bind together the strands of this gripping story, Thomas’s narrative weaves a dark and menacing road through the terrors and turbulence of an age in which a wrong word, a wrong ambition, or even being a member of the wrong sex, can condemn a woman – or man – to death.

Written in a lyrical prose that reflects the speech and language of the 17th century, The Revels explores how deeply-held religious beliefs fed into the fear of witchcraft... a fear that could quickly grow from mild suspicion to paranoia.

Plunged into this all-consuming maelstrom is would-be playwright Nicholas whose theatrical brain can see the parallels between the stage dramas he knows and loves, and the more potent and perilous theatrics of showpiece witch trials.

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Harbouring his own supernatural secrets, Nicholas is coerced by other, more powerful men into playing ‘a part’ in the persecution of innocents... one of whom could well be Althamia, the brave and ambitious woman he has grown to admire and love.

With its fascinating backdrop, a cast of compelling characters, and a moral conundrum that will leave readers on the edge of their seats, Thomas’s debut has well and truly set the stage for one of this year’s most original historical novels.

(HQ, paperback, £9.99)

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