This book was recommended to me by several friends: they knew I'd a fondness for the period in which it's set (17th-18th century); the heroine is a strong and intelligent woman; the narrator is a book; and though this is a very different novel to Stephenson's Baroque Cycle (for one thing, it's about a fifth of the weight), its themes and setting -- even its dramatis personae -- are similar enough to invite comparisons.
The title is a little misleading; this isn't really the tale of Dunstan Stearne (son and heir of Walter Stearne, the Witchfinder General for Mercia and East Anglia) as much as it's the tale of his sister, Jennet, and her adventures in the New World. Step back: it's the tale of the witch craze. Another step back: it's the tale of the Enlightenment. Step back again, and it's the timeless tale of reason versus superstition, Principia Mathematica versus Malleus Maleficarum, open-mindedness versus ignorance.
The best answer to a malicious idea is a bon mot, not a bonfire ... The proper way to defeat the agents of darkness is not to burn down their houses, but ... to let in the sunlight.
Considering that The Last Witchfinder is narrated by Newton's Principia Mathematica, we see surprisingly little of Newton. The focus is on Jennet, who has inherited not her father's compulsively medieval mindset, but her aunt's Enlightened open-mindedness and devotion to the scientific method. Her aunt Isobel, burnt as a witch, has also bequeathed to her A Woman’s Garden of Pleasure -- a book that bestows upon Jennet sexual enlightenment and liberation to match her intellectual emancipation. And Aunt Isobel's last request, quite understandably under the circumstances, is that Jennet should devote her life to discovering a scientific refutation of witchcraft.
This is a quest that takes her to the New World, to life amongst the Indians (I was very happy to see Morrow citing John Demos' The Unredeemed Captive as a primary source: it's one of the books that persuades me that history can be at least as compelling as a novel) and to a series of romantic affairs. Jennet reminds me somewhat of Stephenson's Eliza: all right-minded men who meet her fall in love with her, although she has a somewhat cavalier touch with family members. Even Newton's Principia Mathematica is in love with Jennet (a relationship that is consummated ingeniously, if not altogether ... logically).
For the Principia Mathematica is very much a character in this novel -- a character, and the author. The precise metaphysics by which a book goes about writing another book need not concern us here, handwaves Morrow. Or possibly the Principia: it's a personable narrator, satirical and scathing, principled and high-minded, at once inhuman and profoundly aware of what it is to be human:
While e=mc2 ultimately gives you 177,000 dead Japanese civilians, F=ma lets you skate across a frozen lake on a winter's night, the wind caressing your face as you glide towards the hot-chocolate stand on the far shore.
Perhaps the weakest aspect of The Last Witchfinder, for me, was the physical conflict, the Battle of the Books, between Principia Mathematica and Malleus Maleficarum -- a battle that takes place, not on any ethereal plane, but in vacant lots and warehouses where armies of bibliophagic insects devour pritned copies of the Hammer of Witches. It's almost trivial, against the literally life-or-death ideological conflicts of Jennet's age.
Set against that, though, is the way this novel is about science (though it's 'about' ever so many other things: parents and children, nature versus nurture, the impotence of physical violence against superstition). Newtonian physics are mapped to the four elements of the ancient world: Attraction, acceleration, radiation, resistance: earth, air, fire and water. And in the end, it is no unseen agent but the world itself that delivers the deus ex machina. This is a book that counters creationism, superstition, credulousness: a book that argues, in its own terms, that "God got it right first time."
Rationalism disconnected from decency, deliberation and doubt -- a triad that, were I human, I would call humanism -- leads not to Utopia but to the guillotine.