The ARC for The Familiars by Stacey Halls is amongst those that I picked up at the OLA Super Conference in February this year. The subject of the witch hunt in the 1600s has always intrigued me so I looked forward to this read.
Genre: Historical Fiction
Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.
Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
Rich and compelling, set against the frenzy of the real Pendle Hill Witch Trials, this novel explores the rights of 17th-century women and raises the question: Was witch-hunting really women-hunting? Fleetwood Shuttleworth, Alice Grey and the other characters are actual historical figures. King James I was obsessed with asserting power over the lawless countryside (even woodland creatures, or “familiars,” were suspected of dark magic) by capturing “witches”—in reality mostly poor and illiterate women.
For some reason, when I opened this book I thought it would be a fantasy fiction about witches (the beautiful cover maybe?). Soon into the novel, however, I realised my error but continued reading as I enjoy historical fiction and am interested in the period in which women were tried as witches.
The novel centres on an occurrence that so many women go through – pregnancy and giving birth. Modern medicine has made this a relatively safe event but in the 1600s it was fraught with danger. Unbelievably the women known as the wise women in this time period were seen as witches and many were, for a time, put on trial as witches.
The Familiars is told from the point of view of a woman who is pregnant. We read of her belief in her midwife, as well as her frustration with her inability to save the woman she believes in. How disheartening it must have been for thinking women during that time period to achieve anything! The novel clearly describes the main character’s powerlessness in the face of a powerful man who disregards the opinion of women.
While reading Halls’ novel, I wished for the point of view of Alice, the midwife. Knowing more about what she was feeling – her fear, her frustration, her anger – would have made the novel even more effective. While reading the story as it is now, it does seem a little incomplete as only one side is told. In addition, I would have liked to read a bit more about the trials themselves (maybe through the point of view of Alice). Adding Alice’s story would have made the story more heartbreaking and, for me, more compelling.
However, I enjoyed reading this book with its very brief view of the Pendle witch trials and its story told from the point of view of a wealthy woman who has the time to attempt to save the life of her midwife. For readers who enjoy historical fiction, this novel should be considered as it follows the path of hope.
I give this novel ⭐️⭐️⭐️ 3 stars.
© Colline Kook-Chun, 2019
(This novel was the 32nd in my book pledge for 2019)