When Jane’s lover, Tom, returns from the navy, he finds Jane unhappily married to his rival. Helped by an old priest, they plan to flee to America, but meanwhile Jane’s life as a mother and village healer must continue as normal. Then news comes that John Sharpe (the self-appointed witch-finder who hanged Jane’s mother) is searching for Jane, determined to destroy her, her daughter and her unborn child.
Sunwise, a sequel to Widdershins, does not, for me, quite stand alone as a novel. Too many past events and lost characters are in the shadows, so that Jane, Tom and the priest seem colourless and undeveloped, as though we have missed all the interesting bits. Only John Sharpe is a three-dimensional, if repellent, creation. But why has he such a fanatical hatred of Jane? On what grounds was Jane’s mother condemned as a witch? What part does the old priest play in their lives? Luckily, in alternate chapters Jane and John relate their movements and this does help build suspense to the horrific climax.
The novel is rich in fascinating details: Jane’s remedies and the village customs, partly Christian, partly pagan. Ancient names for plants and festivities, both seasonal and Christian, add colour to the narrative. Jane’s story is based on true events, and Jane represents the many women whose healing gifts made them victims of superstition and violence. In John, Steadman makes a convincing if not original case that his overzealous persecution of supposed witches stems from his fear and shame at his own lust and contempt for women. Sunwise is an interesting novel but perhaps would be enjoyed more after reading Widdershins.