Review: The Familiars - Stacey Halls

“If the Devil is poverty, and hunger, and grief, then yes, I think they know the Devil.”

My Rating: ★★★★

Genre(s): Historical Fiction (Pendle witches), Fantasy, Paranormal

Reading Challenge: 16 out of 35

Goodreads Synopsis —

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.

My Thoughts —

Following my trend of only reading historical fiction novels (seriously, will I ever steer from this genre?!), I picked up this book after reading a bit about it on Goodreads. I’ve never really learned much about the history of witchcraft before, all though I knew about as much as the average person knows and after taking a recent course on the Stuart rule in England, I got the gist that James I wasn’t a big fan of witchcraft (or what he perceived to be witchcraft) in his kingdom. Despite my lack of knowledge, I picked this book up as sort of a beginner’s crash course on the topic. And it ended up doing the trick - I’m officially ready to learn more about this fascinating period of history!

I really liked how Stacey Halls flipped the perception of witches on its head completely by suggesting that the witch hunt was more of a fight for power and an attack on the poor than a reaction to an actual threat of danger. In this book, Fleetwood Shuttleworth - a young noblewoman - finds herself smack-dab in the middle of the Pendle witch trial when she believes someone to be wrongly accused and takes it upon herself to try to uncover the truth. What she finds is a world unlike her own, especially in regards to funds - those accused of witchcraft are disproportionately poor. Through her search, she discovers not only the truth about those involved in the alleged crimes, but also about those closest to her. The idea that the accused were not actually witches, but poor women who were unable to defend themselves is extremely eye-opening about the witch trials in general and how we perceive them today. In that time, what was unusual was considered evil, and the innocent were often persecuted.

Additionally, the way that women were portrayed in this novel was especially interesting. In the early 17th century, women had no rights and no position in the home or in society. They were silent figures that followed their fathers and their husbands - whether those men were good and right, or not. Fleetwood, our main character, has had significant hardship in her life as a young woman. At only 17 years old, she has endured horrors worst than most have in a lifetime. But these things have not broken her down - in fact, they have only made her stronger. And her friendship with her midwife, Alice, only empowers her more. But it is the witch trials that really sends her into full-force. She knows what she believes in and she follows this, regardless of if it is what her husband or society expects of her. Because of this, she becomes a full-fledged heroine. Through her journey, she highlights the greatest abuses against women in the early modern times and it is immensely inspiring.

Perhaps what I found most intriguing about this book, however, was what came after the novel - the Author’s Note, in which it was explained that the characters were real people who lived in 17th century England. That Alice Gray was accused and (perhaps more bogglingly) acquitted of witchcraft. The reason behind this acquittal has not been determined, even now, several hundred years later. Being a history nut myself, I found this mystery completely gripping and had even more appreciation for Stacey Halls, who gave a story to a woman whose life is an enigma.

Are you interested in the witch trials?

Felicia x