The Familiars by Stacey Halls – Book Review

Happy Release Day to The Familiars – the debut novel by Stacey Hall. I was lucky enough to be gifted an early copy of this debut thanks to Bonnier Zaffre. Please read on for my honest review.

Trigger warning – infant loss/fertility

Synopsis

“In a time of suspicion and accusation, to be a woman is the greatest risk of all”

To save her child, she will trust a stranger.

To protect a secret, she must risk her life.

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 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 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 1612 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.

Author

Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire, as the daughter of market traders. She has always been fascinated by the Pendleton 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 had also written for Psychologies, the Independent and Fabulous magazine, where she now works as Deputy Chief Sub Editor. The Familiars is her first novel.

You can find Stacey on twitter @stacey_halls

What I thought

When I initially heard the buzz about this I signed up for an advanced copy expecting a book about witch trials set in the U.K. There was huge buzz around this spellbinding title and I can see why.

Not only is this inspired by real life people and the 1612 Pendleton witch trials the story crafted by Halls is a passionate tale of female friendship, fertility and feminism.

The main two female characters Fleetwood and Alice were both real women but there is no evidence they ever met in real life. Author Stacey Halls has developed a very human story of sisterhood that you will love to believe actually happened.

The Familiars 🦊 of the title have less impact on the story than you might think based on the title and the stunning cover illustrations and are really there to highlight the magical realism aspects of this story. Is magic real? That’s up to you to decide.

I would describe The Familiars as a cross between The Yellow Wallpaper (the early scenes are so reminiscent of this for me) and Jane Eyre with added witch trials. This is a slow burning gothic inspired story that demands a leisurely investment.

As I have shared elsewhere on this blog I have been undergoing fertility treatment (currently on hiatus – more on that when I am ready to share), hence the trigger warning at the start of this post because those expecting a fantasy read about witches might not be expecting the more emotional and heartfelt side to this story.

On her fourth pregnancy at age 17 (married at 13) and risking her life for an heir (knowledge that she finds has been kept from her), it is good to see Fleetwood take things into her own hands. She hire’s Alice as her personal midwife after a chance encounter and the trust that builds between them extends both ways with each saving the other. Is Alice’s skill midwifery or witchcraft? Isn’t it a lack of knowledge of women’s craft and the fear of the power they possess in their independence that causes the suspicion?

Alice Gray is an enigma and I would love to read something from her perspective but that wouldn’t have had the same air of mystery that we get from hearing the story from Fleetwood’s point of view. Here is a fierce young woman – privileged in some ways but, still a woman in a very patriarchal world. She is prepared to fight for what she believes in and she is a protagonist that the reader believes and invests much in.

The male characters in this tale were, for me, the real ‘villains’, as they are in many modern takes on the witchtrials.

Her husband Richard is Rochesteresque but with les romance, and family friend, Roger, is seen as a substitute father figure for Fleetwood but behaves toward her as men of his standing did, seeing her as a pretty but naive young thing. Fleetwood’s questioning of him taking in to his house of one of the accused Alizon Device shows her to be more shrewd than naive.

One more notable character mention has to be Fleetwood’s dog Puck. He is very Familiar-like and has his own personality as animals often do. (Note to my friend Jay. This book is safe to read from this front 😉).

If you love historical fiction with fantastical elements, a mystery to solve, literary merit and female friendship then do pick this up. And make sure you read the author’s historical note at the back. Maybe she’s the real witch by conjuring this tale 😉.

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#40MoreBks – 2019 Reading Challenge

For full details and downloads check out the challenge page here.

Small Spaces by Sarah Epstein – Guest Post – Are Characters Writers’ Imaginary Friends?

Continuing with the spooky theme – today I have a guest post from Sarah Epstein author of psychological thriller Small Spaces.

Synopsis

Tash Carmody has been traumatised since childhood, when she witnessed her gruesome imaginary friend Sparrow lure young Mallory Fisher away from a carnival. At the time nobody believed Tash, and she has since come to accept that Sparrow wasn’t real. Now fifteen and mute, Mallory’s never spoken about the week she went missing. As disturbing memories resurface, Tash starts to see Sparrow again. And she realises Mallory is the key to unlocking the truth about a dark secret connecting them. Does Sparrow exist after all? Or is Tash more dangerous to others than she thinks?

Author

Sarah Epstein spent her childhood drawing, daydreaming and cobbling together books at the kitchen table. A writer, illustrator and designer, she grew up in suburban Sydney and now lives in Melbourne with her husband and two sons. She is passionate about YA, especially the thriller genre, which is her favourite to read. Small Spaces is her first novel.

Are Characters Writers’ Imaginary Friends? by Sarah Epstein

Imaginary friends have always fascinated me. And while I don’t remember having one myself as a child, I’ve encountered plenty of people who did. When my own kids were small and attending playgroup and kindergarten, I’d hear stories from mothers about how they’d overheard their child’s one-sided conversations in the bath, or how their child’s invisible friend had to have a place set at the dinner table. I’d always think, where do these imaginary friends come from? Are they tied to emotional issues, loneliness or just boredom? Are they coping mechanisms, a cry for attention, or even, as some suggest, a spiritual presence that a child’s mind is open enough to see?

It was a subject I wanted to explore in a story. But in many ways I’ve been writing about imaginary friends for years – my own. The characters I create who tell me their story.

In Small Spaces, I wrote about my protagonist Tash’s experiences with her imaginary friend, Sparrow, both as a young child and as a teenager. To do this, I had to understand Tash’s character inside and out – her hopes, dreams, fears and faults – so I could figure out how she would react to the appearance of Sparrow and the situations his presence would put her through.

In a sense, Tash became my imaginary friend, because she was constantly talking in my head. She was with me while I walked my dog, took showers, and late at night when I was trying to switch my brain off to go to sleep. For writers, this is nothing new. Our characters are shadowing us everywhere we go, especially during the drafting stage of a novel when we’re trying to work out exactly who they are. You imagine how they look, speak, think and act, who they are closest to in the world, and what makes them angry or afraid. Soon they become more than just fictional characters – they become friends we are passionate about. They become friends we are rooting for, friends who are keeping us company on our writing journey as well as actively driving our stories.

And, until readers discover these characters, they are friends created in our imagination that no one else can see.

Is this so different from the imaginary friends some of us invented during childhood? If they were created for company, entertainment, comfort or even a bit of attention, perhaps it’s not so different at all. And while I may not set a place for Tash at my dinner table, or hold a conversation with her in the bath, she’s always with me, tucked away inside my head.

Thanks so much to Sarah for this insight into how characters can ‘live and breathe’ for the writer. Hope everyone taking part in NaNoWriMo has picked nice people to spend the next month with

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