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The Revels 

Stacey Thomas

(HQ, 2023)

Review by Kate Morrison


‘Death is a song. I’ve known its rhythm since birth, but still I flinch from it.’

Aspiring playwright Nicholas Pierce has a macabre power: he can hear the dead singing. In 17th century England, the age of witch-hunters, this is a very dangerous gift indeed. 

When his half-brother Francis dies fighting for the King in the English Civil War, Nicholas becomes his Parliamentarian father’s heir. His father makes his inheritance conditional on accepting a job as clerk to judge and former witch-hunter William Percival. Together, Nicholas and Judge Percival travel North to oversee the York assizes, through a country scarred and divided by war.  

In this ambitious, carefully researched, debut novel, Stacey Thomas gives us an alternative perspective on this period of history. The protagonists of books about witch-trials are usually women, as modern writers try to reclaim their stories from historical slander.

In Thomas’s version, the main character is a young man, his situation made perilous by his employment and the constant need to conceal his powers. The narrative is heavy with the presence of the dead and the songs they sing of their endings. The theme of binding runs throughout the book: as the province of ‘knot witches’ who bind their spells by tying knots with thread, ribbons or hair; and the duty that ties many characters to roles they would rather not play.

In York, Percival is pressured by the Mayor into overseeing a witch trial, despite his wish to leave the employment of his past behind. As the grim proceedings unravel, Nicholas falls in love with the Mayor’s daughter, Althamia, who is then herself accused of witchcraft. Nicholas and even Judge Percival also fall under suspicion, accused by another witch-hunter. There is a lot of plot to pack in here and there are places where the story becomes quite dense and the pace drops.

The narrative drive and sense of menace pick up again when Nicholas and Percival are summoned to Rawton, a village still marked by the long shadow of the famous Pendle witch-trials, where another witch-hunter has begun to assemble testimony and accusations against unfortunate neighbours. 

Thomas does well at capturing a community riven with distrust, showing how easily grudges and petty spite can be weaponised. The Civil War setting, dividing families including Nicholas’s own, makes a fitting backdrop to a narrative clouded with suspicion.

In Rawton, Nicholas meets Althamia’s cousin Grace, who he suspects has hidden powers of her own. The tensions between his true nature and the job he has to do become greater as he and Percival are made complicit in witch-hunter Rush’s investigations, heading inexorably towards the trial and death of more innocent people.  

Nicholas has the power to save the accused from execution, thanks to his ability to hear the songs of the dead – but in speaking out he may damn himself. The author leaves you wondering until the last minute whether his protagonist will gather up enough courage to speak the truth.

With The Revels, Stacey Thomas has created an original take on this murky, violent episode of British history. It’s a satisfyingly eerie debut from a writer with a keen sense for atmosphere and the darker threads of human motivation.