The Familiars: A sumptuous gothic tale based on real historical events

My mother always said I cared too much what people thought, but really I cared too much about what people said, especially when my back was turned. Thoughts were private, rumour was not…” 

You’re probably noticing a bit of a theme with my recent reviews – namely that I have raved about every single book. My first few choices of January turned out to all be fantastic reads (I am writing this on the fifteenth day of the month so hope the trend continues).

The Familiars by Stacey Halls has been pretty well publicised. Here in the UK it was highlighted as a Waterstones book of the month and was selected as one of Richard & Judy’s book club reads. This made me a little bit dubious as novels which receive this level of publicity can sometimes be pretty disappointing and overhyped. 

The Familiars turned out to be better than I expected. A perfect and well researched historical fiction full of mystery, drama and a headstrong, feisty female protagonist. The text is dripping in suspense, the reader trapped and as claustrophobic as Fleetwood as we journey with her to prove her friends innocence, defend her own life and battle against forces out of her control.  

It is sumptuously gothic. 

So what is it all about?

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is with child for the third time, having lost her two previous pregnancies. At 17 she has been married for four years and is under pressure to produce an heir. This is her sole responsibility, one which her husband is determined that she fulfils, even though she finds out that he is aware it could cost her her life. 

A chance encounter brings Alice, a midwife, into her life. Alice promises that she can help Fleewtood deliver a healthy baby, but is everything about Alice as it seems? Is she, as she is accused of being, a witch? Has Fleetwood spotted her “familiar” in the forests? And can she prove that Alice is innocent before she is sentenced as part of the Pendle Witch Trials of 1612?    

Fleetwood’s life is dominated by fear and death. She longs for motherhood but it could kill her (of course a reality for women of the time). The threat of each of these pervades the whole novel and takes it beyond your more standard historical fiction. 

Are you like the king now, thinking all wise women and poor women and midwives are carrying out the Devil’s work.” 

The question that the novel poses, at least in my opinion, is whether the trials were hunting women rather than witches. The victims are largely wise women, who provide care and advice to those who are sick. They live, for the time, unconventional lives. Even Fleetwood is threatened with accusation when she begins to question the men around her and show some strength of character and independence.  

Words, rumour and gossip all have the ability to ruin a woman’s life. Should she upset the wrong person, or persons, it could cost her her life. 

It is hard to believe that this is Halls’ debut novel, the writing is faultless and the plot beautifully crafted, you would easily believe this is a novelist who has been writing for years. The quality of the book is even more impressive when you realise that she wrote it during a nine week sabbatical from work. 

Halls dedicated herself to researching the trials and the period in which they took place – filling in details as she progressed with her research; the little historical details are part of the delicate weave of this novel. Then there are the Pendle Witch Trials themselves, which again Halls has researched in meticulous detail. All the characters mentioned where real, although of course the events of the novel are purely fictional. 

Stacey Halls’ next book, The Founding, comes out next month and I for one will be purchasing it.

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