The Familiars was one of my most anticipated reads of the year, and I’m thrilled to say that it lived up to my expectations!
In a time of suspicion and accusation, to be a woman is the greatest risk of all…
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.
Fleetwood is a fantastic protagonist, and one that I couldn’t help but cheer on. She comes across as being somewhat conflicted, wishing to behave in a manner fitting a woman of her station, yet unable to curb her enthusiasm for “unladylike” pursuits at times. She is wary of her own staff, and reluctant to give them orders, and she comes across as being endearing, if perhaps a little naïve. I was a little concerned about her determination to keep riding during her fourth pregnancy when the first three turned out so badly, but I couldn’t help but admire this plucky young woman who is determined to do her own thing, and for standing up for what she believes is right.
Fleetwood is lucky in many ways, as her husband Richard appears to appreciate her unconventional behaviour and attitude, and yet it soon becomes apparent that he is only willing to indulge her so far, and only as far as her behaviour suits him, and I felt that this highlighted the attitudes towards women at the time, even when Fleetwood is given significantly more freedom than most women would have experienced.
Desperate to deliver a son to her husband, Fleetwood comes to rely upon Alice Gray – a young woman with knowledge of herbs and midwifery who immediately helps to ease Fleetwood’s morning sickness where all else has failed. Fleetwood becomes convinced that Alice is the only one who can safely deliver her child, and so when Alice is caught up in the Pendle witch trials, Fleetwood is determined to help her. I loved the ambiguity with which The Familiars is written, never going as far as to declare the so-called Pendle witches either innocent or guilty. Rather, there are hints at what they may have done, without making a judgement.
But people are still sick, and dying, and having children, and not everyone has a royal physick. The king has muddled wise women with witchcraft.
Similarly, Halls explores the motivations of those involved in the witch hunts, from those seeking to curry favour with the king and those aiming to achieve a better station in life, questioning their motivations, and highlighting the one-sided nature of the investigation and supposed evidence against these women, who were unlikely to have been given a fair opportunity to defend themselves.
Inspired by real events, The Familiars brings to life the events leading up to the Pendle witch trials, and Halls has created a fantastic narrative around these events. It features real people, and yet the story is entirely Halls’ own, and this is a beautifully written (dare I say bewitching) debut that had me completely captivated.
Published by Zaffre on 7th February, The Familiars is available to purchase now.