The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

Evil has come…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

It’s 1643, and England is in the midst of Civil War. Thomas Treadwater has been injured and is temporarily unfit for fighting, so when he receives a worrying letter from his sister he makes for home. Esther has written that their father has fallen under the influence of a girl he had taken in as a maid – Chrissa Moore. Hard for Thomas to believe since his father is a staunch Puritan with impeccable morals – not at all the type to fall into the clutches of a seductress. But Esther hints that Chrissa may have bewitched him. On arriving home, Thomas finds all the sheep on the farm dead or dying, his father struck down by apoplexy, and Chrissa in jail on the basis of Esther’s accusation of witchcraft. But is Esther telling the truth? As Thomas learns more he begins to suspect that evil has come to his father’s house… something more evil even than witchcraft…

The first half of this novel makes it seem as if it’s going to be a fairly standard story about a woman accused of witchcraft at a time of religious and social turmoil. Very well written and clearly excellently researched, there is enough mystery around Esther’s motivations for her accusations to make it interesting and compelling even in this crowded field.

But then, wow! Suddenly, about halfway through, Andrews takes it into a whole different direction – full-on supernatural horror, but soundly based on the superstitions, religious beliefs and mythology of the time. The suddenness with which this happens is jarring, or perhaps shocking would be a better word, although we have known from occasional chapters set sixty years in the future, 1703, that the events of 1643 have cast long, dark shadows, and that the story may not be over even yet. The change takes the book to an entirely different level, one where Andrews touches on some of the deep religious questions torturing England as the Reformation continues to rive the country – questions such as free will, faith, God’s plan and man’s submission to it, predestination, and the end times as foretold in the Book of Revelation. (Note to self: MUST read the Book of Revelation – it has inspired so much great literary and horror writing!)

Antichrist on Leviathan
from Liber Floridus, 1120, via wikipedia

I don’t want to go into the plot in any more detail since it’s one that works better the less you know going in. I was super-impressed by how well Andrews captured what felt like an authentic 17th century mindset, in all of her characters, but especially in Thomas. As for many others, the horrors unleashed by the Reformation in terms of persecution and war has led Thomas to question his own faith. He is a pre-Enlightenment man though he doesn’t know it, and his scepticism will play a role in how he acts. He turns for help in his troubles to his old mentor, John Milton (yes, that one), and through him we learn a little about the philosophical questions of the day. The whole thing is a fascinating imagining of what might come to pass if those parts of the Bible that sceptics call superstition and even believers think of as allegory turned out to be the literal truth. How would we respond? Is faith strong enough to enable us to submit to God’s will, or would we, with the best of intentions perhaps, try to thwart His plan?

The writing is great, as is the characterisation. Thomas, as our narrator, is the one we get to know best and it’s his confusion and moral dilemma that involves us most. But both Esther and Chrissa are wonderful creations too – Chrissa at first seeming the more complex of the two, but Esther soon revealing herself as something more than the simple innocent worried for her father that she first appears. Milton’s appearance might have seemed a bit too quirky if handled less well, but he’s not in it enough to overwhelm the story, and mostly acts as a vehicle to discuss the theological and philosophical issues of the day.

All of that might make the book sound heavy and ponderous – not at all! Andrews manages to get all this depth into what is fundamentally a thrilling horror story of the old-fashioned kind – free of graphic gore and based on the age-old debate of good versus evil, and man’s moral frailty. I wondered how much classic horror Andrews has read – some of the passages in the latter sections as the book builds to its climax put me in mind very much of the horror greats, especially the writing of William Hope Hodgson. It may be, though, that the similarity comes not from Andrews being influenced directly by these writers but by them all having been influenced by the same mythological and Biblical sources.

Rosie Andrews

I think this is a wonderful book – thrilling, thought-provoking, brilliantly achieved. I loved that Andrews put herself and her readers so firmly in the mind-set of the time and never let 21st century beliefs or attitudes distort the picture. I thought her horror writing was fantastic, creating some truly marvellous imagery. And despite my own strictly rational outlook, she immersed me in the beliefs of the time so well that I found the story credible within the world in which its set, and the ending entirely satisfactory. The thing I found hardest to believe, in fact, is that this is a debut novel, and I can’t wait to see what Andrews gives us in the future. Highly recommended!

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Raven Books via NetGalley.

Amazon UK Link

54 thoughts on “The Leviathan by Rosie Andrews

  1. You enjoyed this a lot more than I did, I think! I loved the witch hunting storyline in the first half and would have preferred the book to continue like that – the sudden switch to supernatural horror and religious allegory was too big a change for me. She does write very well, though, and I agree that this is a very impressive debut novel!

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    • It was a big shift of tone in the middle, and it might not have worked for me if I hadn’t been forewarned by other reviews. But because I was expecting something it didn’t throw me out of the story the way it might otherwise have done. But her writing is great and I thought she set it really well in the world of that time – an author to look out for, though I hope she veers more towards historical than horror in the long-term.

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  2. This sounds really interesting, FictionFan! I always appreciate a book that can give an authentic sense of time and place, and it’s fascinating to think about how such things as free will, etc, were seen at that time. And it’s doubly hard to avoid making a book like that ponderous, so kudos for that, too. Hmm…..when you first mentioned ‘supernatural,’ I wasn’t sure it would be my sort of book, but it does sound appealing…

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    • Yes, as you know I’m not keen on the supernatural intruding either, except specifically in ghost stories! But this felt more like a meditation on some of the Big Questions of the time through the medium of horror, rather than horror for horror’s sake, if that makes sense. I wasn’t expecting to love it – a great surprise!

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      • It was a great story! I loved the setting Andrews evoked both in place and historical time and how she layered dread into that setting as well as religious and philosophical underpinnings. By saying less about the supernatural, and with her language so in harmony with the time the story is set, I thought she made the threat more real and compelling. I was left with the sad sense of Thomas’ and Mary’s lives (not to mention Esther’s) lived in constraint, perhaps balanced by their commitment to the greater good. It made me think this could be metaphor for other constrained lives (self-imposed or otherwise). A deeply satisfying story.

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        • Oh, I’m delighted to hear it worked so well for you too! I did feel sorry for Thomas and Mary, and *mild spoiler* couldn’t help feeling at the end that if they had made the decision they finally reached at a much earlier time, they would have been able to lead more normal lives. But I loved that she made the supernatural aspects feel integral to the story and the beliefs of the time, and didn’t allow them to overwhelm the book. It still astonishes me that this was a debut – how on earth is she ever going to follow it? Can’t wait to find out… 😀

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  3. This wouldn’t really appeal – I’m not a big reader of the supernatural. But it does sound very well integrated into the story, so you’ve given me pause for thought! It will be good for me to read outside of my comfort zone 🙂

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    • I’m not really enthusiastic about the supernatural appearing in the middle of mainstream fiction either, but here I felt it was not only appropriate to the story but that she did it extremely well, using real superstitions and mythologies that would have been at the forefront of people’s minds at the time she was writing about. If you do decide to go for it, I hope you enjoy it too!

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  4. For some reason I was expecting this book to have been published centuries ago – but then I saw the author photo and realized it was a present day release! Which makes it all the more impressive. The appearance by John Milton seems like a fun one too 🙂

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    • No, brand new release! And even more impressively it’s a debut! I quite enjoyed the appearance by John Milton, someone I know very little about it has to be said, but I have seen other reviewers saying that they find that aspect a bit too quirky. I think the fact that I have grown to appreciate old fashioned horror really helped with this one since the horror is of that style.

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    • Hmm, interesting question! And one that sadly I can’t answer, since I’m ashamed to admit that I haven’t read either of those! However it sounds as if you may be right, because Milton definitely acts as a kind of mentor to the main character, and given the amount of research that she has clearly put into the book it wouldn’t surprise me at all if she was also referencing The Odyssey or Dante’s Inferno.

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  5. I’m glad this turned out to be a success after all, the last we’d discussed it, you mentioned it was turning out strange but pleasantly strange I see. The change in direction is intriguing and thought-provoking is always good. And Milton comes into it, even more interesting. Enjoyed reading your thoughts on this

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    • Ha, yes, at the stage where I included it on a Bookish Selfie post it had just started to show signs of having a horror element, and briefly it did look as if it was going to become not unlike The Exorcist! Happily however, it turned out to be something much better than that! I thought she did an excellent job of using what would have been contemporary superstitions and beliefs to make something quite thoughtful out of the horror aspects. Really, an excellent debut!

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  6. This sounds excellent and is what I was expecting from The House of the Seven Gables really, which didn’t deliver and since I read the bible recently as a project, it would be good to put that ordeal to use!

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    • I haven’t read The House of the Seven Gables, but looking at the blurb I see what you mean. It does sound as if it ought to have been similar to this, but I think this one was much more readable than I ever find Hawthorne to be! Although she set it firmly in the beliefs and attitudes of the 17th century, her writing style is obviously much more modern, and very good. Haha, congratulations on managing to read the Bible! I’ve started it a few times in my life but never got much further than all those begattings! But I really do think that I should read the Book of Revelation – it’s been the influence for so much horror writing over the years.

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  7. I’m not sure about that sudden switch, but I am impressed that a debut novel would have tried — and succeeded in — something so radical. The typical advice, of course, is to pick a genre and stick with it. I guess publishing is relaxing some of its strict rules. Glad you obviously enjoyed it so much!

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    • That’s an interesting point, Debbie, that hadn’t occurred to me! Now that you mention it, I’m really quite surprised that a publisher took a chance, with a debut author particularly, on a book as different from the normal run of historical fiction as this one. And it’s undoubtedly getting mixed reviews, although considerably more positive than negative, I think. So their gamble has paid off!

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  8. Interesting. I love your enthusiasm for this! And am wondering, now, if its supernatural element is anything like Andrew Pyper’s The Demonologist, although Pyper’s book is set in modern times. I really enjoyed that one….

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    • Haha, people keep comparing this to other books and since I’ve never read any of the other books I’m unable to say whether it’s similar or not! But I thought the supernatural element in this one was handled really well, making good use of what would have been the superstitions and beliefs of the time. Really, an excellent debut!

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    • Yes, I really hate when historical fiction is full of 21st century language or attitudes! This one I felt, though it was written in perfectly ordinary modern language, avoided all that kind of anachronistic stuff, and the attitudes seemed to me very realistic for people of the time. An excellent debut – can’t wait to see what she does next! 😀

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  9. I really didn’t think I had any desire to read this, but by the time I got to the end of your review I was thinking otherwise. I’m still thinking. 🤔 It may have to go on the wishlist.

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    • Well I should hope so! It’s been far too long since I added to your TBR! 😉 Seriously though, it really is a very good one, and so long as you can put up with the supernatural stuff, hopefully you would enjoy it. 😀

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  10. I love how much you love this book! It does sound like an excellent start for a potentially interesting writer. But the horror, though handled so well, still puts me off and for some reason I’ve never been wild about books set in England’s Civil War period though there is much that should appeal to me.

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    • The war is really only background here – it’s much more about the religious side of the Reformation which always interests me more (oddly, given my atheism!). I think my ventures into classic horror definitely helped me to appreciate this one. In general I’m not a fan of supernatural or horror aspects in modern novels because they tend to be too graphic, but this had the feeling of the greats of the past!

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  11. This sounds brilliant. I wouldn’t be able to cope with the horror, I don’t think, but I’ll still keep an eye out for the author, just in case she fancies writing some historical science fiction next!

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    • Honestly I hate strong modern horror, so if it’s OK for me that means it’s at the very mild end. Shivery, rather than hiding behind the couch! But I’m also hoping she chooses the historical fiction route rather than the full-on horror route for her next outing!

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    • Oh, I hope you enjoy it! I think you’ll find the religious aspects interesting in the way she tries to get into the Reformation mindset. And I certainly found knowing in advance that it changes into something different halfway through meant I wasn’t too discombobulated when it happened!

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  12. What a twist?! I am not a huge horror fan, but the lack of gore and more classics horror elements makes me think I might like this. 😅 As for the book of Revelation, good luck with reading it, I find it pretty mind-boggling! There is a lot of metaphor and imaging in it which is odd to us today, but I have been told would have been understood when it was written. Like the image of a man with a sword blade coming out of his mouth would apparently have meant a warmongery/someone talking war. 🤪

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    • Ha, yes, it’s all that weird imagery that seems to have inspired so many of the classic horror writers, and several mainstream fiction authors too! But if I read it, I shall make sure I have a good commentary to hand to explain it to me as I go! If you decide to read The Leviathan, I hope you enjoy it – at least you’ll have a head start by understanding the religious aspects! 😀

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    • This was one of the highlights of the year for me so far, so I hope it works just as well for you when you get to it! Thanks for popping in and commenting – and for the reblog!

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