14th December 2022

Review: The Leviathan

Witchcraft. Demonic possession. All-knowing entities. these are just a few of the themes to expect in Rosie Andrew’s explosive debut novel
Review: The Leviathan
Photo: Toby Young @ Mancunion

Christmas, 1643. The Leviathan has awoken.

Thomas Treadwater is a solider in Cromwell’s army. He is returning home to Norfolk to be with his family on their farm.

An ominous letter from Thomas’ sister, Esther, tells of witchcraft and intrigue plaguing the town. Thomas won’t be having the festive homecoming he needed.

As debut novels go, it’s tough to find a more intriguing plot than this. Esther tells Thomas that the family’s servant girl, Chrissa, is pregnant. What’s worse is that she claims the child is Thomas’ Father’s. Chrissa is then put on trial for witchcraft, and Thomas’ father suffers a mysterious stroke.

In and of itself, this is a great plot line. It appears at first it will form the basis of the book. The truth is quite different.

Andrews begins her novel as a typical historical mystery, reminiscent of Andrew Taylor or C.J. Sansom. It soon develops into something far more sinister.

Before going into depth on the plot, the scenery deserves its own discussion. Andrews does a lovely job of setting up 17th-century Norfolk. Bleak empty fields, lonely farmhouses, and spectral churches loom over the towns like sentries. Few mentions are made of the civil war in the plot, despite being set at its’ height. The conflict serves more as a backdrop for Thomas’ story.

Usually, the use of such an important historical event as a mere backdrop would be a missed opportunity. However, the plot is so fascinating you will find yourself completely satisfied.

The title of the book is also of note. It bears the same name as the political masterpiece Leviathan by Thomas Hobbes, who was writing his work at the time Andrews’ novel is set. This Leviathan is a different beast entirely.

The book turns into a murder mystery when Chrissa is accused of killing two servants. However, this storyline doesn’t last for long, as intriguing as it is. Andrews flits between genres like a moth to light; the reader is constantly kept on their toes.

By the one-third mark of the book, the genre changes again into the dark, terrifying depths of demonic possession. It is at this point that The Leviathan sheds its skin and enters arguably its best and most intriguing form. We learn that an ancient evil, linked to a shipwreck years before has been hiding, dormant, in plain sight, waiting for its moment to spring loose. And now it is awake.

Andrews absolutely shines here. The reader has goosebumps when the Leviathan mentions events to come in the future such as the battle of Stalingrad and the atomic bomb. Things which have no meaning to Thomas but will make the reader’s hair stand on end with their implications to the leviathan’s intellect. The Leviathan’s motives remain wonderfully obscure throughout the book. It’s the sort of stuff that will have you up till 2am, unable to put it down.

It’s often dangerous to introduce an ancient evil in literary fiction. The dialogue has to be absolutely spot-on for it to be convincing. Andrews doesn’t just achieve this. She also manages to give her leviathan a terrifying sense of apathy. Beyond your usual all-knowing evil villain (think Palpatine or Sauron), you genuinely feel that the Leviathan is acting towards goals completely beyond our comprehension.

Other characters benefit from this treatment too. Thomas is complex, both modern and of his time. Although the civil war is not at the heart of this novel, Andrews has clearly done her homework and then some, as the whole story is dripping with reminders of the time period. One of my favourites was Thomas getting furious at his sister for seeing a male visitor into the house without him present; a brilliant reminder that these characters are very much products of their time.

Chrissa is another character that stands out. Although existing in a period of severe prejudice, Chrissa has a remarkable sense of independence and strength which appears totally genuine. Although she begins the story as the antagonist, I guarantee she’ll win you over by the end.

This novel is full of depth and content. It’s a phenomenally rich storyline, twisting and morphing into so many different forms. Although this is at times a strength, Andrews may have benefited from focusing on one element. It’s hard to decide what genre this book falls into, and it can seem like there are too many ideas at times.

Overall, Andrews has made me incredibly excited. If this is how elegantly she writes for her debut novel, then I really can’t wait to see what she comes up with next. The Leviathan is rich, detailed, and meticulously researched. It caters for all manner of genres and really has a little something for everyone. I loved every second, and I cannot recommend this highly enough.

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