I first found out about this book because of Instagram. I’d been following Harriet Young (thesenovelthoughts) for a while so I had been aware that she was writing her first novel. When she was looking for funding on Unbound, it didn’t take a lot of persuasion for me to preorder it. I was fascinated by the story and the history of the Pendle witch trials. I’ve been waiting to read this one for a long time and, when it arrived last moth, I couldn’t wait to start reading it. Of course, it was just a huge coincidence that it also crossed off one more letter on my Spell the Month Challenge.
Witch trials were carried out in England from around the 15th century all the way through to the 18th century. During that period, it is believed that about 500 people were executed as witches. The Pendle witch trials saw 12 people accused of witchcraft and ended with 10 people being executed. That accounts for 2% of all the deaths from one trial. So, it’s no wonder that this event has become one of the most famous witch trials in history. We know a great deal about the trials of 1612 thanks to the publication of the official record The Wonderfull Discoverie of Witches in the Countie of Lancaster but there is still so much that we don’t know about the women and men who were executed.
That’s where Harriet Young comes in. Her debut novel The Hellion introduces us to the women at the heart of the trials. We meet the three generations of one family who get caught up in the drama. Young’s imagined history attempts to give them a voice and an identity beyond the accusations of witchcraft. This story takes the information that we know for sure and adds a human side to it. The Hellion wonderfully blurs the line between fact and fiction to bring these women to the forefront. The story starts in Whalley 1537 when Henry VIII dissolved the abbey. Two young girls are witnesses to the devastation and it alters their lives forever. This significant event changed the local community and helped create the social and economic climate that caused the witch trials.
The two girls, Anne and Elizabeth, eventually part ways and find themselves competing for work. Having been raised by Anne’s grandmother, the pair have both learnt the skills of a wise woman. They provide for their families by offering healing remedies, spells and even curses. Skills that are passed down between the generations. Until Elizabeth’s granddaughter, Alison gets caught up in a scandal. After a run-in with a pedlar, Alison is accused of practicing witchcraft. This ends up with her family being arrested. During the interrogation, Anne’s family also ends up being implicated. As the story goes on, we get to see how easy it was to manipulate the truth in order to punish these women for trying to gain financial independence.
There is an awful lot of detail in The Hellion but it is still so readable. It doesn’t waste time on unnecessary exposition or repetition. Instead, we learn what we need to know and other aspects are alluded to. The pacing is also perfect. There’s something of a slow build before the ending but it is a book that keeps on giving. There are no lulls in the narrative where you’re just waiting for the inevitable. Instead, the tension builds at a steady rate. Obviously, there are no surprises here for anyone who’s familiar with the history but that doesn’t matter. You can see how the threads come together and how misunderstandings come to light. There is a creepiness here that will keep you on the edge of your seat as you try to work out what is and isn’t real. Is magic being performed or is it just a cunning illusion?
It’s clear that plenty of research went into this book but it never feels too bogged down in its own history. All of the details work together to make the story so much stronger. It’s a completely engaging novel that is really difficult to put down. My only issue is that the end feels pretty abrupt considering what has come before it. I know that it’s probably an intentional thing because we’re dealing with the unnecessary deaths of so many people. I guess it was just a case of wanting more good stuff. I didn’t want the book to end and could happily have kept on reading. This is definitely a book that can be enjoyed by anyone. If you have knowledge of the events in 1612, you will possibly have a greater appreciation for the story but it’s not something that is necessary to enjoy the book. The writing is good and the characters really come to life on the page. I can’t wait to see what Harriet Young comes up with next.