Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

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 Shuttleworth is with child and knows via an uncovered letter to her husband, Richard, that it’s likely she will die before or in childbirth. Desperate to deliver a healthy heir, it’s as if Fleetwood’s meeting with Alice Gray is written in the stars as Alice is a midwife, and as Fleetwood learns, a good one too. However, it’s not long until Alice’s name gets caught up in the county’s witchhunt and the future of both women is threatened and dependent on the other.

”We were bound together in some dreadful destiny, and it was clearer now than ever that to survive, we needed one another just as equally, and just as desperately.”

The Familiars by Stacey Halls is likely to be the biggest surprise hit of 2020 for me. I didn’t anticipate loving it as much as I did, but I really, really did love it. I think what made me love the story so much was how it’s a mixture of a gripping yet cosy read. It’s also one of the first audiobooks I’ve listened to where I genuinely loved the whole production of it too.

Stacey Halls is now undoubtedly a not to be missed author for me. As explained at the end of the book, The Familiars is inspired by real life history of witch trials in England, which would generally capture my interest, but Halls added a dimension to this history that is often overlooked or simply not achieved in conveying history: heart. The fictional tale weaves this history into an emotive narrative that lingered in my mind as if I had actually been bewitched. It really isn’t an exaggeration to say this stunning debut haunted me.

I must mention that at the crux of this story is miscarriage. On top of the key plot point of the main character having miscarried three children, I have to forewarn that there is some prose in this that could be distressing to anyone who may be triggered by any exploration of this, as I felt myself some prose (albeit striking and moving) was definitely alarming. An example of such prose: ”Richard raced upstairs to find me hunched over the bed as pain folded me in half again and again. I wish he had not seen how incapable I was, how keenly the child did not want me as its mother.”

The Familiars was truly enchanting and I wholeheartedly recommend it, especially heading into the autumnal season. Halls effectively captures the toeing-the-line of potential witchcraft, superstition and suspicion to cultivate an atmospheric with a strong female foundation in the story’s tone and the strength of friendship. I really did love it.

P.s. the narrator of the audiobook, Katy Sobey, brought this story to life like no other. Not only am I beyond keen to read Stacey Halls next book, The Foundling, in the near future, but I’m also very interested and excited to listen to other audiobooks Sobey has narrated. The books Sobey has narrated that I’m interested in: Uprooted and Spinning Silver by Naomi Novik!

Buy It Now

The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Published February 2019
Genre: historical fiction, witch trials, fantasy

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