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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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The White Hare by Michael Fishwick – Blog Tour (Guest Post)

I’m very pleased to introduce The White Hare, and Zephyr to you today. The White Hare by Michael Fishwick is the launch title for Head of Zeus new children’s imprint, Zephyr.

This beautiful hardback book is a lyrically mythical delight. Michael Fishwick, already the author of two novels, Smashing People and Sacrifices has kindly written a guest post on dealing with death in children’s books.

WH cover

Robbie doesn’t want anything more to do with death, but life in a village full of whispers and secrets can’t make things the way they were.

When the white hare appears, magical and fleet in the silvery moonlight, she leads them all into a legend, a chase, a hunt.

But who is the hunter and who the hunted?

Strangely, both my first two novels began with a death, and I’m not entirely sure why. I remember showing the opening pages to my wife, because I was worried her father, who seemed old then, to me, might die as I wrote the book and I didn’t want to jinx it, or him. As it turns out, he’s still very much alive at ninety-six, though sadly my own parents died as I wrote The White Hare, something that took me years to address and some of the effects of which worked their way into Robbie’s own experiences.

When I write I don’t have a target reader in mind. I want you, the reader, to be drawn in and entranced, held captive by the fiction, and I want to create a reliable and absorbing texture. What interests me, above all else, is how we experience our lives as human beings. For me, both in my day job as a publisher and as a fiction author, writing is part of a journey to understand and as importantly feel what those experiences are all about.

In Robbie’s case, I wanted to develop a vibrant and suffering voice, one that is experiencing adversity and facing up to it. I wish that when I was being bullied at school I could have responded with the tough, leathery bravado that Robbie does. Once, I was in the local library and I was just leaving the children’s bit to find my dad on the other side of the building in the adult bit (this was in Dulwich, south London) when some boy who seemed twice my height took my books and put them on top of a van where I couldn’t reach them. He then asked what I was going to do about it. I stood there, my eyes on a level with his stomach, and I knew what I should do, I should drive my fist into his stomach as hard as I could; but I quailed, and ran. My little brother had seen what was going on and scooted ahead, so I found my dad belting out of the library towards me. I’ve never seen anyone box anyone’s ears before or since, but that’s what he did to the bully.

So when thinking about Robbie and his mother’s death I really wanted to get the essence of the relationships and the emotions. A lot was based on my own childhood in south London; my parents then went abroad and I was sent to boarding school, and at the age of fourteen was hauled into my housemaster’s study to be told my beloved aunt had died of cancer. I was fourteen. I had no idea how to respond; I had enough on my plate with the bullying. She was witty and kind and read PG Wodehouse and made me sandwiches with very thin bread when she took me out of school and we sat under the lamplights on Clapham Common in her dark green mini before she took me back. With Robbie, his response was to go wild and burn things; it’s all about anger, an emotion that fascinates me. At that age I think death is incomprehensible. I remember realizing that I would die, again at boarding school with no one to turn to, when I was about twelve. So I just didn’t think about it for a long time. But when writing about Robbie I wanted to get down the essence of the experience on paper. With Fran, who chooses it, it seemed a natural part of the white hare legend, and here I wanted to write about the ruthless brutality of love in one of its aspects (in another it is kind and forgiving, of course). When someone chooses to kill themselves, some react with horror and a lack of forgiveness, but I think of the depth of sorrow and madness and churning feelings that make you not want to exist anymore.

What I am really trying to do in The White Hare is through imagination and empathy find a way of confronting and defying the reality of death, and that whole process begins for all of us in childhood.

 

 

My Thoughts

I really enjoyed this story and oddly it reminded me of Watership Down and the film Lady in White in its tonal quality. The image below, a sentence about tears, shows a flavour of the beautiful writing in this book. I would describe the genre as magical realism because it is through the supernatural and mythical elements that Robbie, his friend Mags, his father, and the reader learn more about, and begin to deal with the nature of death. I think I might need to re-read to fully appreciate all the nuances. I liked how Robbie is just friends with two girls and it was refreshing for romance not to be a main element. I also felt the rural and seasonal setting added an certain innocence to which the violent episodes in the book was in stark contrast. It’s interesting to see the author write about his personal experience of bullying and then how that is played out in the book (I’m not sure I entirely agree with the method Robbie uses on occasion). I could really see this as a Sunday afternoon BBC family series, in the vein of Moondial. Gosh this book is bringing back memories. If you like your stories lilting and poetic do give this one a read.

Tears

Huge thanks goes to Blake at Head of Zeus for the copy and to Michael for sharing this story. My opinions are, as ever, my own. Please do check out the tour banner below and head along to the other stops to learn more about The White Hare. I look forward to seeing what other books Zephyr has to offer.

WHITE HARE

 

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