Book Review: The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks

The Darkest Shore…

About the Book:

The independent women of Scotland stand up to a witch hunt, male fury and the power of the Church in a battle for survival in this compelling historical novel based on true events in early eighteenth-century Scotland.

1703: The wild east coast of Scotland.
Returning to her home town of Pittenweem, fishwife and widow Sorcha McIntyre knows she faces both censure and mistrust. After all, this is a country where myth and legend are woven into the fabric of the everyday, a time when those who defy custom like Sorcha has are called to account.

It is dangerous to be a clever woman who ‘doesn’t know her place’ in Pittenweem – a town rife with superstition. So, when a young local falls victim to witchcraft, the Reverend Cowper and the townsfolk know who to blame. What follows for Sorcha and her friends is a terrifying battle, not only for their souls, but for their lives, as they are pitted against the villagers’ fear, a malevolent man and the might of the church.

Based on the shocking true story of the witch hunt of Pittenweem, this multi-layered novel is a beautifully written historical tale of the strength of women united against a common foe, by one of Australia’s finest writers.

My Thoughts:

History is rife with examples of humans doing their worst. When you read as much historical fiction as I do, you have occasion to come across this fairly regularly. Even so, I’m still pulled up at times by history that has been buried deep in the hopes that it may not ever be discovered and pulled out into the light. And so it is with the 1704 witch hunt of Pittenweem, the history that this incredible novel, The Darkest Shore, is based upon. This is a dark read, with human nature exposed at its most despicable, where torture and murder is vindicated as ‘the will of God’. It was at times a harrowing read, but such is the talent of Karen Brooks that this darkness did not equate to a depressing read. There are moments of such strength and love between friends and neighbours that you can’t help but feel as though this story is as uplifting as it is harrowing. As is the way with history, from the author’s notes at the end we learn that the very worst parts of this story were the ones that were entirely true.

‘Yet to Reverend Patrick Cowper, the fishwives represented everything he disapproved of: loud, godless women, women without men to control them, teach them how to behave and keep them tamed and quiet. That they were able to earn their keep and had means and property besides, only added to their sins.’

The Darkest Shore is a long novel, a touch over 500 pages, and it’s also a very involving novel. The story is epic in scope and immersive in its attention to detail. I absolutely loved the Scottish-ness of it, the language, the customs, and the way in which people interacted with each other; the ebb and flow of daily community life. This is where the more uplifting parts of the story were evident, particularly in the connections between the fishwives. There was a loyalty and affection between them that was empowering to witness. For all that these women endured, they drew strength from each other and I believe this was a big part of the reason why they survived all they were subjected to. Karen Brooks has brought the history of who these women were to life with honour and affection; this novel really is a beautiful tribute to who the fishwives were and the important role they played within Scottish fishing communities in the early 18th century.

‘In the telling, she owned the story. She took it from the men who inflicted the pain and suffering, the officials who allowed it to happen and kept records, and made it hers.’

Reverend Cowper was a villain and a half, let me tell you. There was no end to his evil, he just kept on stalking the women, hammering away at his congregation about ‘the witches’, whipping up hysteria and fear. He was a man obsessed, but what was more alarming was how the majority of Pittenweem locals fell for his fervour. Honestly, the man was transparent in his agenda and purely evil, yet he ruled that community like a puppet master. It’s a telling reminder of just how easy it is to manipulate the masses if the chips are all falling down in your favour. That he fashioned himself in the model of Pontius Pilate was beyond arrogant and entirely reprehensible. He deserved a reckoning that far surpassed what he had orchestrated and allowed to be done within his community. Karen Brooks gives us a more satisfying outcome with regards to Reverend Cowper than what history reports of his true fate.

‘Listening to the reverend, Sorcha marvelled that this man of God, who should be alleviating people’s fears, was exacerbating them. When he should be encouraging unity, he was fostering discord and suspicion.’

I really loved The Darkest Shore. The history of witches and witch hunting is of particular interest to me and I feel that Karen Brooks has handled such a dark history with care and empathy. I read The Chocolate Maker’s Wife last year and adored that and when considered alongside The Darkest Shore, I’d have to say that Karen Brooks is now one of my favourite authors. I’ll be reading everything she releases from now on and will be making a point of reading her historical fiction back list as well. I can’t recommend this one highly enough, it’s a brilliant read.


Thanks is extended to HarperCollins Publishers Australia for providing me with a copy of The Darkest Shore for review.

About the Author:

Karen Brooks is the author of thirteen books, an academic of more than twenty years’ experience, a newspaper columnist and social commentator, and has appeared regularly on national TV and radio. Before turning to academia, she was an army officer for five years, and prior to that dabbled in acting. She lives in Hobart, Tasmania, in a beautiful stone house with its own marvellous history. When she’s not writing, she’s helping her husband Stephen in his brewery, Captain Bligh’s Ale and Cider, or cooking for family and friends, travelling, cuddling and walking her dogs, stroking her cats, or curled up with a great book and dreaming of more stories.

The Darkest Shore
Published by HQ Fiction – AU
Released 24th February 2020

8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Darkest Shore by Karen Brooks

  1. I’m Scottish, but am ashamed to say I know very little about this episode of our history. I hope this is published in the UK, as I would certainly read it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • In the author note at the back, she talks about her trip to the area and how there was almost no information locally about it. Apparently someone has also tried in the past to raise a plaque of remembrance but efforts have so far been in vain. It seems that you might have had to have gone digging for the history Alyson!


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