2019 Reviews · historical fiction

Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Title: The Familiarsthe familiars small

Author: Stacey Halls

Published: February 4th 2019

Publisher: Allen & Unwin

Pages: 432

Genres:  Fiction, Historical

RRP: $29.99

Rating: 4.5 stars

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 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. 

As 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?

Soon the two women’s lives will become inextricably bound together as the legendary 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.

Review:

The Familiars is a historical re-imagining of the famous events surrounding the Pendle Witch Trials, which took place in 1612, under the reign of King James I. Delicately embroidered within this historical recreation, is the story of a friendship between two women from contrasting backgrounds, in an age where women were simply seen as child rearing commodities. With touches of magic, a dash of mystery and an enigmatic lead, The Familiars will lure you in from the start to finish.

When I first set eyes on the cover of The Familiars, I have to say it was love at first book sight! This is a stunning cover piece, the little motifs that adorn the front all signify an important aspect of The Familiars. From the greenery, winding forest plants, a necklace, a fox, a scroll and a woman’s silhouette, these little images symbolise key events of the novel.

Stacey Halls is a skilled writer. I was immediately struck by her writing style, which was refined and assured. The Familiars features prose that is full of imagery and poetic realism, but at the same time, it flows just beautifully. I seemed to hurtle my way through this novel, I couldn’t stop it reading for the most part of a day. Once I started, I found it hard to put down. I just had to know if the main protagonist Fleetwood would both survive her pregnancy and give birth to the much awaited heir successfully. I also desperately wanted to know if Alice survived the Pendle Witch Trials.

I consider myself a little versed in the area of witchcraft. During my university studies I chose the elective ‘Turning Points in History’ which directed me to a series of historically important witch trials from the past. I have not come across the Pendle Witch Trials before The Familiars. Like the author of this book, I am completely fascinated by this event in history, along with the historical context in which this book is set. Anything revolving around King James I and this period in British history is utterly captivating. Stacey Halls is a dedicated historian, who I believe has done a fine job of transferring her research to the pages of a historical fiction based novel. Taking a few historical liberties here and there to flesh out her novel works well, leaving the reader enthralled by the story at hand.

Throughout The Familiars we walk in the footsteps of Fleetwood, the prime narrator of this novel. Fleetwood is equal parts complex, agreeable, ahead of her time and quite ingenious, as well as scheming. She is also loyal and her touching friendship with Alice is what really makes this book special. Fleetwood’s story actually made me feel very sad for her and many others of her standing that were placed in a similar bind. We learn as the book eventuates that Fleetwood was actually married off at the tender age of four, but she was never able to perform her duty as a wife to her first husband. Fleetwood was then betrothed at just thirteen, a child herself, and expected to produce an heir. Although her world is one of privilege, ultimately Fleetwood’s fate is pre-determined. Halls provides her readership with an outstanding picture of the world inhabited by women of this time period.

The characterisation is simply excellent. From the two female leads, the strong male influences in the book, such as Fleetwood’s husband Richard, scheming Roger, Fleetwood’s mother and of course, Puck – Fleetwood’s loyal canine companion. The Familiars is a book that has so many good aspects, congealing together to form one cohesive bond. There was a gentle hint at magic, but it is so subtle that you barely realise its placement in the novel. Most of all, I enjoyed the tense and swirling atmosphere that pervades the entire length of the novel, it was quite astounding.

A novel that is enticing, historically fascinating, inspiring and is marked by a brooding atmosphere, The Familiars is a stunning debut by an author I will be watching closely.

The Familiars by Stacey Halls was published on 4th February 2019 by Allen & Unwin. Details on how to purchase the book can be found here.

To learn more about the author of The Familiars, Stacey Halls, visit here.

*Thanks extended to Allen & Unwin for providing a free copy of this book for review purposes.

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