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
“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.
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 😉.