The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Publisher: Bonnier Zaffre
Publication date: 7 February 2019
Genre: Historical fiction
Page count: 432 pages
Rating: 4 out of 5 stars
I won a free proof copy of this book at YALC 2018. This is a spoiler-free review.
I love historical fiction, but it tends to get cast aside in favour of science fiction and fantasy for me. Enter The Familiars, a gorgeous book set during the 17th century witch trials in England, with a cover that I couldn’t resist. I won an early copy of this book back in July and am kicking myself for not reading it sooner! This debut novel investigates class, privilege, female friendships, and the danger of being a social outcast, all with a touch of the unknown.
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 isn¹t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.
When 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.
When 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?
As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, the legendary trial at Lancaster approaches, and Fleetwood¹s 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.
The Familiars is a deceptively fast-paced book that is difficult to put down. The way the prose flows so wonderfully and really brings the story to life. I loved the light sense of claustrophobia and dread threaded throughout the book — as Fleetwood presses against social boundaries and what is considered acceptable for a woman, the prose gets more and more constricting. In addition, there is an extremely light touch of magic, which was incredibly effective.
Fleetwood is our first person narrator, so it shouldn’t be surprising that I really liked her as a character. I loved her inner monologue and the way that she slowly begins to realise her the privilege of per position in comparison to other women like Alice who do not have the protection of title and money. The fact that she does manage to identify this privilege and attempts to use it to help others was incredibly effective, but she still felt very much like a woman of her time. She wants to be a good wife and mother and due to her inability to carry a child to term, she feels like she is failing in her only duties. However she has a spark of resistance that I love in female historical fiction characters.
I was surprised that her friendship with Alice wasn’t a bigger part of the story — there isn’t the kind of bonding or powerful relationship that I thought there would be. It felt almost as though their friendship was just a plot point to push Fleetwood’s growth as a character. Alice herself was a little flat and dull, although that is possibly because we don’t get her point of view at all, and I just didn’t connect with her at all. This was the most disappointing aspect of the book for me because Alice had so much potential to be a phenomenal character.
The Familiars is a spell-binding historical fiction novel that will haunt you long after you read the last page. I cannot recommend this novel more highly if you’re interested in historical fiction or female-centric books.
Want to give The Familiars a try? You can pick up a copy here (affiliate links):