Three months ago, I was visiting my sister in Limerick, Ireland when we popped into a book store. (We actually went to several book stores during my visit; I have an obsession!) I decided I needed to get a book (or 10) as a souvenir, and the first one I chose was Stacey Halls‘ debut, The Familiars. I was drawn to its beautiful cover, then remembered I’d added it to my wanted list on Goodreads sometime in 2019, so I knew I had to get it. Though I was in the middle of a non-fiction reading spree, I kept gazing at The Familiars longingly, promising to read it soon.
Fast forward to last week, and it was the right time. I’m currently reading through history, working my way forward from ancient Greek mythology – Circe and The Silence of the Girls – through the 1500s with The Secrets of Life and Death. Now we’re into the 17th century.
The Familiars is set in Lancashire, England in 1612: the year of the famous Pendle witch trials. The book centers on Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the wife of the wealthy Richard Shuttleworth. She may stand 4’11” and be only 17 years old, but Fleetwood immediately demonstrates her big personality and self-assurance. She’s strong-willed and active, always riding horses, joining her husband on hunting trips, and playing with her large dog, Puck.
But for all her strength of character, Fleetwood is in dire circumstances: Already four years into her marriage, she’s pregnant for the fourth time. The first three ended in miscarriages, and she’s learned that her current pregnancy will likely kill her. She’s desperate to give birth to a healthy baby, but she’s also desperate to survive herself.
She ends up meeting a strange girl she discovered on her property, and decides to hire her as her midwife. Alice Gray is a reserved and poor young woman, but she has a way with herbs and healing that instantly improves Fleetwood’s health. We don’t know much about Alice, but it’s not long before she’s accused of murdering a child by witchcraft – a crime punishable by death.
Events draw Fleetwood and Alice closer together before pulling them apart. We also watch as Fleetwood’s relationships with her husband, a close friend of the family, and her mother falter after betrayals and cold truths come to light. Eventually, Fleetwood realizes three lives are in her hands, and she can rely on no one but herself. She must save Alice from conviction and death in order to save her own life and that of her unborn child.
The Familiars is a magical book that pulls you forward as you read. You instantly feel drawn into the story, identifying with Fleetwood and Alice. Each of the characters springs from the page, vivid in both their appearances and their actions. As the book progresses, they begin show more sides of their personalities, and your trust in and understanding of them continues to evolve.
I love how the book explores different kinds of relationships – between a married couple, between friends, between a mother and daughter. And those relationships change throughout The Familiars – some for the better, and some for the worse. Not everything (or everyone) is as it seems, and nothing here is black or white. Although Fleetwood starts off rather naive and silly, her character evolves as she learns more about the people in her life. But she never loses her optimism or determination, and those traits carry her through the story.
The Familiars also spins an intriguing web, filled with shadows and glimpses caught from the corner of your eye. It feels a little bit magical, and the talk of witchcraft and use of herbalism throughout subtly adds to this feeling. But even beyond that, there are hints of something ethereal. Stacey Halls doesn’t answer every question, leaving a few loose ends for readers to fill in as they like. Did we see witchcraft? Was the fox someone’s “familiar spirit”? It depends on how you interpret the clues.
I admit, I walked into The Familiars blind. I wasn’t sure what to expect, but perhaps this made my enjoyment of the book that much sweeter. It unraveled into something extraordinary, and with its vivid imagery and action, the story played like a movie. I felt fully immersed into the story and flew through the pages over the course of one weekend.
The Familiars is a beautiful story and a superb debut. With hints of mystery and fantasy, this historical fiction novel – based on real people and events – was dynamic and vivid. I’ll be recommending it to everyone, and I’ll definitely be getting Stacey Halls’ second novel, The Foundling, next!