Source: Review copy
Publication: 7th February 2019 from Bonnier Zaffre
In a time of suspicion and accusation, to be a woman is the greatest risk of all . . .
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as the mistress at Gawthorpe Hall, she still has no living child, and her husband Richard is anxious for an heir. When Fleetwood finds a letter she isn’t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
Then she crosses paths by chance with Alice Gray, a young midwife. Alice promises to help her give birth to a healthy baby, and to prove the physician wrong.
As Alice is drawn into the witchcraft accusations that are sweeping the north-west, Fleetwood risks everything by trying to help her. But is there more to Alice than meets the eye?
Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood’s stomach continues to grow. Time is running out, and both their lives are at stake.
Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
There are so many good things about The Familiars. Its beautiful cover, gorgeous endplates and an overall lush design for a start. If you’re a sucker for a beautiful book, this one takes some beating. But also witches and women fighting the patriarchy told from the perspective of women, and how glorious is that in historical or any other kind of fiction?
Anyway, to the story. This is a nicely told tale based on historical fact about the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612 in Lancashire. Nine-year-old Jennet Device gave evidence which led to the execution of 10 people, including all of her own family.
Stacey Halls captures very well the paranoia that was endemic at the time. James l (Jamie the Saxt) was on the throne, living in fear of a Catholic rebellion in the aftermath of Guy Fawkes’ gun powder plot. James had a reputation as an avid witch-hunter and had written a book called Daemonology. This gave the excuse and the opportunity to those who would curry favour with the King to round up troublemakers, Catholics and old enemies and brand them as witches.
Taking the real characters from the Pendle Witch trials, Stacey Halls paints a fabulous picture of the life of a young woman of that time. Fleetwood Shuttleworth has already had three miscarriages and is desperate to produce an heir for her husband, Richard. When she meets Alison Gray on the Moors, she is drawn to the girl and has faith in her skills as a midwife.
But Alison is versed in the ways of herbs and potions and that, along with the fact that she is a woman, makes her already a potentially suspicious individual in some eyes.
As the women bond and learn more about each other’s lives, it is easy to see how they come to believe that each is the salvation of the other.
Fleetwood gains strength and character from Alice’s stoicism and quiet knowledge and Alice respects Fleetwood’s spirit, honesty and integrity.
As the two women get to know each other better we learn more about Fleetwood’s backstory and her difficult relationship with her mother and it is easy to see why both Alice and Fleetwood needed a friend. Halls neatly captures the restless spirit of Fleetwood and the way that she has trouble reconciling her role as the respectable wife with her own need to assert her character.
As Fleetwood finds that Alice is in real trouble, she will need to find the power within herself if Alice is to be saved and that means having to face up to the ghastly local magistrate, Roger Nowell who thinks nothing of burning a dozen or so women in his efforts to show his royal fealty.
In a blend of fact and fiction that melds together like sugar and butter Stacey Halls has created a wonderful story of female friendship and empowerment in a time of turmoil.
Verdict: A heart strengthening, delightful read and what could be more magical than that?
Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She studied journalism at the University of Central Lancashire and moved to London aged 21. She was media editor at The Bookseller and books editor at Stylist.co.uk, and has also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. The Familiars is her first novel.