Book #12

The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.

Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.

Tales of the Pendle witches are some of the most famous in history, with the trials being heavily documented then, and still now. With The Familiars, Halls has placed a new spin on the trials. Focusing on the life of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a wealthy married woman desperate to give her husband an heir, she shows us how these trials lent a bloodthirst to men, and portrays the impact this had on all women, not just the accused.

I have strange feelings about this book. During my time with it, I was enthralled, almost inhaling every word, and having it finished within a couple of days. Engagement was high, and I was desperate to reach the conclusion, anxious to see how everything turned out. After finishing, with the handy use of hindsight, I feel a bit less enchanted. Ironically, it feels as though I’d been under a spell.

Although the book has been marketed well as a diving board from which to plunge oneself into the witch trials, there is very little commentary on these. Instead, we live with Fleetwood through her relationship with her midwife, Alice Gray, who may or may not have magical powers. Fleetwood sees them as fast friends, yet there is very little evidence of this in their characterisation, certainly not enough to justify her actions towards the end of the novel.

Fleetwood herself is a difficult character to like. Initially cast as the timid wife, whose only desire is to please her husband, she soon transforms into a defying woman, hellbent on challenging hierarchy, government, and the decisions of men. The catalyst for this transformation isn’t clear, and the likelihood of a woman in the 17th century achieving even a fraction of Fleetwood’s success feels improbable.

Despite these exasperations of mine, I was immersed throughout the novel. Halls has a unique ability to drip atmospheric tension and dread throughout her chapters, and her structure and pace were entirely flawless. Her commentary on men’s oppression of women, and their ability to make use of power was satisfyingly infuriating, and the vulnerability and helplessness of women attempting to protect themselves was maddening.

A wonderful debut filled with female empowerment, uprising, irrevocable bonds, and a little bit of the supernatural.