"Speaks the Nightbird" by Robert McCammon: Plot Summary and Review

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Speaks the Nightbird by Robert McCammon is a historical fiction novel about the imprisonment of an accused witch. It is a suspenseful, mysterious and well-written novel that delves into the moral issues of deception, greed, law and death. Robert McCammon wrote this immense novel after taking a hiatus from writing. He obviously came back as good at his craft as he ever was.

The story is centered around an aging magistrate named Isaac Woodward and his young assistant, Matthew Corbett, who are called to Fount Royal to oversee the trial of an accused witch–Rachel Howarth. At the start of Speaks the Nightbird, Matthew and Isaac are on their way to Fount Royal when they stop to stay the night in a shady tavern. They are robbed and attacked by the tavern’s despicable owners who force them to walk the rest of the way to Fount Royal. The weather is atrocious and Woodward gets sick immediately after their arrival.

In Fount Royal, Corbett and Woodward realize that most of the people of the town wish to get the trial over with and execute the witch. Isaac refuses to rush because of his health and his want of a fair trial. Slowly, they begin to learn all of the accusations aimed at Rachel. She has been accused of fornicating with the devil, manipulating residents, murder and various other acts of witchcraft. Matthew doubts her guilt from the start and begins to doubt it even more after spending a night with her in prison.

As Speaks the Nightbird progresses, the magistrate becomes gravely ill and is put under a lot of pressure to finish the trial. It eventually becomes clear that he is dying, but the founder of Fount Royal brings in a doctor to prolong his life to the point of cruelty, so that he may finish the trial. While the magistrate is sick in bed, Matthew does some investigating of his own and soon discovers the true culprit behind these crimes, but by then it is too late.

The magistrate is forced to find Rachel guilty. Matthew decides to break Rachel out after realizing he loves her. He decides to take her to Florida, but on the way he is attacked by a bear and cared for by natives. During his convalescence, Matthew finds a way to prove that Rachel is innocent. The rest of Speaks the Nightbird tidies up nicely thereafter. The magistrate dies, Rachel is exonerated and the guilty are brought to some form of justice.

Speaks the Nightbird does get off to a rather slow start, but the plot picks up momentum in the second part (it was originally published in two parts). You could say that some of the loose ends were left hanging for a little too long. There is a lot of suspense in the novel, but at times it was tedious to keep turning pages only to find that virtually none of your questions are answered until the last part of the novel. However, Speaks the Nightbird is a page-turner and an enjoyable novel.

Shelly Barclay


  1. If McCammon ever wrote a bad book, I have never read it.

    1. Same here. Finished Queen of Bedlam this past winter. It was great, though Speaks the Nightbird remains my favorite.