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A Reveiw - The Familiars By Stacey Halls

Fleetwood Shuttleworth is a seventeen-year-old gentlewoman, married for the second time and pregnant for the fourth time. Based on the real mistress of Gawthorpe Hall at the time of the Pendle Witch Trails of 1612, this fictional account is a page-turner.

Fleetwood is desperate to keep this child having miscarried her other pregnancies. And she is under pressure to give her husband a male heir or her future if she survives the birth, is uncertain.

Fleetwood meets Alice Gray, a midwife and natural healer. Alice says she can deliver a healthy child for Fleetwood. The women are from entirely different backgrounds but they become friends and this relationship is central to the novel.

Alice is arrested and accused along with the other Pendle witches of witchcraft. She is locked up in Lancaster Castle in appalling conditions to await a trail which will surely end in her hanging for witchcraft. Fleetwood is determined to save her friend, herself and her unborn child but time and events are not on her side.

I do not generally read historical fiction but I enjoyed Hall’s debut very much. It is a story that stays with you after the final chapter ends. There was enough reference to the trappings of 17th-century life for me to feel immersed in the times and way of life Fleetwood experienced but without swamping the narrative with detail.

The characters are well-drawn and engaging. I liked both Alice and Fleetwood although, at times, I wished both women could have been a little more feisty. Perhaps in 1612, it was safer not to be though.

The reference to the witch trials and the superstitions of the day runs throughout the story. There are references to animals and the familiars that accompany the witches and the descriptions of the woods and settings are vivid.

The Familiars is beautifully written, hugely atmospheric and hard to put down. I look forward to reading Hall’s second novel, The Foundling when it comes out later this month.

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