11 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on 13 June 2007
This book is a very enjoyable read, though not always an easy one. Morrow has taken the battle between Renaissance and Enlightenment, between superstition and reason and located it in a time when witchfinders were stll scouring the English countryside and when unspeakble things were being done to unfortunate women in Salem, Massachusetts. If this sounds a touch dry then don't worry...it isn't. This is a picaresque novel full of larger than life characters, the best of whom are the doomed Isobel Mowbray, the exuberant Barnaby Cavendish and the fantastic heroine Jennet Stearne.
Jennet's mission is to see the overturning of the Witchcraft Statute by Parliament and it is this ultimate aim that unites the various episodes that make up the story. Some of these episodes are fantastically realised, especially the final trial scene which is genuinely tense. However, it has to be said that Jennet's time among the Indians is a trifle dull and her shipwreck on the Caribbean Island isn't nearly as exciting as it sounds. This is the problem with the book. Morrow has written a very ambitious novel and, although some things work brilliantly others just don't. The idea of casting the narrator of the novel as a book, Newton's Principia Mathematica, is original but ultimately doesn't work. Although it succeeds in creating a viewpoint located outside the time frame of the story, it becomes a distraction. Morrow has obviously done a lot of research into the intellectual and scientific theories of the period and, while at times these are stimulating and colourful, at other times they detract from the storytelling.
To sum up this is an entertaining and enjoyable read and it is worth sticking with. An ambitious, exciting, frustrating and flawed novel.
2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on 22 June 2012
In early 18th century England, a time when scientific and philosophical discoveries are beginning to change the way the world thinks, 11 year old Jennet Stearne is being raised - daughter of Walter Stearne, Witchfinder-General, and educated by her aunt Isabel. Jennet is an intelligent girl, but doesn't quite grasp the discrepancy between her father's profession and her aunt's lessons in philosophy and physics, until the day Walter's job leads him to his own sister-in-law who suddenly stands accused of witchcraft, for her scientific studies. Using all the techniques which have always stood him in good stead - the devil's mark blemishes, the rejection of the water when thrown into the river - then trial by jury, Walter finds he has greater allegiance to his principles as witchfinder than to the woman who has helped him raise his own children, and Isabel is burned at the stake.
The story follows the rest of Jennet's unexpectedly 'colourful' life, through Salem witch trials, kidnap by Indians, and romance with Benjamin Franklin. She is horrified by her father's actions, but despite dedicating her life to creating what she believes to be an irrefutable argument against demons and witchcraft, she decides that the only way she can prove her case once and for all is to stand trial accused of witchcraft herself. It's then a question of whether she will suffer the same fate as her aunt Isabel, or if logic, reason and science can save the day...
Very funny in places, and interesting, too; but the second half dragged a bit and I did get a little fed up of the constant adventuring. I think this would have been a much better story with some brutal editing throughout, but it's a good entertainment, nonetheless.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 6 October 2013
This book is less about witch finding and more about science and maths. I enjoyed the parts which included historical facts about witch hunting in both England and the New World, but not so much the tedious extracts of Newtonian mathematics which especially populate the earlier part of the book. I nearly gave up reading after the first few chapters which are bogged down with extended explanations of experiments and maths problems conducted by the main character and her aunt, which don't really add anything to the story apart from the author apparently showing off that he understands them. Luckily these appear less frequently after the opening segment. I also didn't like how the narrator of the story was a sentient book- it just seemed a bit silly, really, and annoying when it suddenly broke up the narrative for some self-indulgent ramble from the book about other books it was friends with. I found myself often skipping these sections when they came along, and the reading experience improved for it.
Having said all of the above, I did enjoy reading the story and wanted to find out what happened in the end. It also made me interested to look up the facts behind the witch trials and provoked some thought about the mentality of people during that period of history. I would recommend reading this, however be prepared to skim through the dense explanations of maths experiments and the outside narrative, as these add little to the story.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 30 September 2010
I found this book fascinating and a little strange at the same time! The writing style gets a bit of getting used to but once you get into the book its great! Set in England in the 17 century.
Jennet Stearne is an intelligent precocious young woman her, aunt Isobel is a radical thinking woman and excellent teacher who takes on Jennet's education whilst her father and brother travel round the country hunting down witches and bringing them to justice, with some of the extraordinary methods used in the times. Things go well until the witchfinders find Isobels scientific experiments and style of teaching too much like "Witchcraft" to understand! Isobel is tried and executed as a witch and Jennet determines to overturn the Parliamentry witchcraft act and bring about the end to the barbaric crimes carried out by the Witchfinders in the name of the lord! Jennets father and brother are exhiled to the Americas for overstepping his authority, and Jennet has to go too as she is only 12, and her adventures begin. I really do not want to tell you the whole plot but it is a rollercoaster of a ride.
Anyone interested in Witchcraft trials and 17th century life would find this a really good read.
1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 27 May 2011
High brow lit, this one, and you have to be suitably erudite to know what erudite means, and be in the mood for it. This is no summer beach read. The moods of C18th Henry Fielding with C20th and C21st genious as Umberto Eco, this book is learned, but it carries its learning well and you end up rooting for the characters, especially the book who narrates the story. It is satire and scientific polemic. Though the main character is a pioneer woman of scientific bent, this is not a story about pinoneer women in 18th Century America, but rather a celebration of the triumph of reason over religious fundemnentalism and secular oppression. I find the traditional casting of the church and religion as the bogeyman rather tired, and felt the author could have come up with something a little less Richard Dawkins, but this is an excellent book, and I would imagine it taking its place on my shelf next to Swift and Defoe.
14 of 17 people found the following review helpful
on 26 June 2006
This book is a behemoth, a veritable tour de force of the age he is portraying and that (I believe) is the books greatest strength and greatest weakness.
The Last Witchfinder is very difficult to classify or sum up in a sentence as it spans such a wide and varied time in both the settings that uses and the characters that are described, however I will do my best to do just that. The story centres on Jennet Sterne, a gifted and arguable petulant child whom is the daughter of Walter Sterne, the Witchfinder of Mercia and East Anglia, and sister to Dunstan, air apparent to Walter's title. As Dunstan is often away with his father learning the family trade Jennet is left with her Aunt Isobel, a scholar who opens Jennet's mind to the many wonders of the world. However, in this turbulent time a woman studying science and who lives alone with very quickly attract very unwelcome attention of Mr Sterne senior...
This is how the book begins, however in terms of describing the setting of the book I am doing it scant justice as the story takes us to Philadelphia, an Indian village, a desert island, to passionate embraces with her suitors and onwards to the challenge of parenthood. All of these settings are well described and the supporting cast are well defined but this is where I feel there is a weakness. Due to the volume of major characters and major settings you feel that the book is trying to cram in just too much for its 500 odd pages and on top of this I feel the timing / pacing of the book is also askew, for example there are many instances when you will be reading a passage to have it finish with (or the next passage begin with) and 4 years later, or Ben and Jennet went through 3 summers like this... This to me is a slightly lazy way around the narrative.
Now the really unusual part of this book is the interspersed narrative of Newton's Principia Mathematica, the idea being that the book (as with others) has a sentient nature, capable of having a one sided relationship with its readers and its author. I loved the concept but it felt just so out of place within this novel I struggled to see its relevance at all!
I would recommend this book but don't take it on lightly, it really needs sticking at. There is some wonderful interplay between the central characters which is worth the read alone but parts are overly wordy, not that relevant and can touch on the boring, thankfully the good parts far outweigh the bad.
5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 28 June 2006
What a great story the author has woven in this book. The lead character is utterly captivating and the supporting cast quite believable. The subject matter - the Christian-inspired campaign against witchcraft in the 17th/ 18th century and thereabouts - and the battle of the protagonist to use enlightenment science and thought against it, manages to enrage, sadden and captivate the reader - or at least me.
The main device of the book - another book as narrator - was clever and done well - maybe it's been done in other books, but not one I've read.
I would have given the book 5 stars, except there was one adventure/ twist in the story that was just too unbelievable. Still, a gripping, entertaining and worthwhile read
on 10 October 2009
This is a good historical romp based around the Salem Witch trials. It manages to be humourous whilst also depicting the tragedy and insanity of mass hysteria. It certainly created a lasting impression. If you enjoyed this book, you might also like The Book of Books which takes both a humourous and poignant look at 5,000 years of history and allows you to appreciate what life was like in what was for all intents and purposes, a completely different world.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on 29 September 2010
I have numerous issues with this book. The storyline is unbelieveable, repetetive and static. The characters are unsympathetic, including the heroine who seems callous and selfish. The concept that this story is told by a book, while amusing, adds nothing to the narrative.
While Jennet is the one central character, she didn't really have a distinct voice. The same was true for most of the characters; while there were obvious differences between those who championed science and rationality and those who clung to the old ways, no one character had an individual way of speaking or thinking. The groups of characters presented two sides of an argument, and that was all the distinction between them. Equally annoying was the consciously archaic speech. I had barely read a chapter before the constant stream of "i'faith", "e'en", "`sblood" and "'twas" littering the direct speech was wearing thin. `Sblood, 'tis a passing wonder I managed to read the whole thing, i'faith.
In spite of the bizarre and implausible storyline, James Morrow has evidently done his historical research (apparently this took him seven years to write). Usually I appreciate a well-researched novel, but this book does not present it in a way which makes the information interesting or relevant. Instead of being woven into the story, it is delivered in large, self-conscious chunks of knowledge by the Principia, as if designed to show off how much research has been done in order to write this book. The other problem with this is that the story was so ridiculous that I don't really trust any of these facts without double-checking them myself (particularly when the writer states in the author's note that he has deliberately changed some details) and they are far too many, varied and, quite frankly, dull for me to want to do that.
on 3 February 2014
so funny and so interesting. an unbelievable plot intertwined with interesting historical and philosophical detail. it makes me think about what people will be saying in three or four hundred years time about the obvious stupidity of current ideas and values. a brilliant read.