*I received a free ARC of this novel, with thanks to Bonnier Zaffre and NetGalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: 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.
The Familiars gripped me by the throat in the first few paragraphs and held me by my very breath until the final page. I felt as if it was my own life and family at stake as I read, and cheered the characters’ successes even as I wept with their disasters.
The story is a fictional tale of very real women and events, and those familiar with the history of witch trials will recognise the import of the Lancastrian location, specifically the mentions of Pendle.
I know something of the witch trials and their unedifying history, but Stacey Halls effortlessly smacked the breath out of me with the reality of how very helpless the women were at the time; at the mercy of any man or woman with a grudge and a lack of conscience, but also of well-meaning but fearful family and neighbours with their own axes to grind, wheat to measure and families to think of.
And yet, even as I read about the precariousness of the female position and how fragile her place in the world could be, I also saw the strength, the perseverance, the creativity and determination. Faced with death, Halls’ women cling to life with every fibre, and not just for themselves but for their loved ones and for each other.
I finished the book with a better appreciation of the terrible struggles women, rich and poor, faced in the past (and present!) and with a fervent respect and love for the immense strength and love of women individually and together in friendship.
More than the insightful themes, historical education and emotional impact, this was simply a fantastic story. It contains mystery, heartbreak, peril, intrigue, action and imagination. I couldn’t put it down and can heartily recommend that you pick it up!
A young woman was kneeling a few yards away, staring at me. Every line of her was alert with an animal tension. She was shabbily dressed in a homespun wool smock with no pinafore, which is why I did not see her straight away among all the green and brown. Flax-coloured hair spiralled down from her cap. Her face was long and narrow, her eyes large, their colour unusual even from a distance: a warm gold, like new coins. There was something fiercely intelligent, almost masculine, in her gaze, and though she was crouched down and I standing, for a moment I felt afraid, as though I was the one who had been discovered.
– Stacey Halls, The Familiars
The Familiars is available at Amazon and other good bookstores right now!