The Familiars by Stacey Halls


One of the books I was most looking forward to reading this year was The Familiars, the debut novel from Stacey Halls. As a fan of historical fiction, this was a story I was drawn to as it is inspired by true events and historical figures, surrounding the Pendle witch trials that took place in the early seventeenth century.

The story takes place in 1612 where we are introduced to Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a young married woman residing at Gawthorpe Hall. And despite being only seventeen years old, Fleetwood is pregnant for the fourth time, and having suffered through three stillbirths already she is desperate to provide an heir for her husband Richard, who is also anxious about having a son. This puts a strain on their relationship, and their struggle highlights the attitude towards women at that time, and the emphasis placed on their ability to produce an heir over everything else. I was quickly drawn into Fleetwood’s world, as we learn that the family physician has little hope for Fleetwood’s latest pregnancy, believing that she will not survive another. However, a chance encounter with a midwife named Alice Gray gives Fleetwood hope, as Alice is certain that she can help her give birth to the healthy child that she craves. As the story develops we get to see the bond that develops between the two women, and how their lives become intertwined.

I was intrigued to see how Fleetwood’s story would develop alongside the relationship that she builds with Alice. I liked that the story explored the plight of two women who are from very different backgrounds, who each have faced extraordinary trials as a young woman in the seventeenth century. For Fleetwood, becoming a wife at such a young age, and having to endure four traumatic pregnancies. And for Alice we see a woman who has picked up skills as a midwife, ways of treating people which unfortunately lead her to be drawn into the accusations of witchcraft that begin to circulate. With both women’s lives hanging in the balance there was a sense of unease, and a tension building as time begins to run out for both women. Fleetwood risks everything to try and help her friend, and together they fight against a world in which they have little control over their own bodies and fates. Alongside this there was also an otherworldly feel to the writing, with the imagery and use of familiars which hints at a world in which not everything is as it seems.

I found The Familiars to be an enjoyable read which explores an intriguing area of history and the challenges faced by the women at this time. And with aspects of the story being based on true events, this made their story all the more fascinating.

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