The Familiars by Stacey Halls

the familiars

I received a free ARC of The Familiars by Stacey Halls from the publisher in return for review consideration; receipt of a free copy has not affected my opinion or the contents of this review. The Familiars is a paranormal historical novel, due to be published by Bonnier Zaffre in the UK on 4th February 2019.

Below is the Goodreads synopsis of the book:

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 isn¹t supposed to read from the doctor who delivered her third stillbirth, she is dealt the crushing blow that she will not survive another pregnancy.

When 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. 

When 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? 

As the two women’s lives become inextricably bound together, 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.

First off, the cover of this book is absolutely gorgeous. I was lucky enough to receive an ARC, and it’s just an overall lovely book. So if you’re attracted by shiny covers, this one will definitely pull you in!

Although I’m not a big reader of historical fiction in general, I do love witches, and I also enjoy historical fiction which deals with some of the ways women were oppressed in that particular time. In the early 1600s, this was through accusations of witchcraft, even when the accused women were likely just using knowledge of basic medicine they had learnt, which made use of herbs and the experience of generations before them. The Familiars has this at its heart, and I really enjoyed that element of the story.

I also really enjoyed-slash-was incredibly frustrated by the historical elements surrounding the trials. There’s religion at play, there’s monarchy and its power over a divided country, there’s the patriarchy, there’s so much. The historical setting is richly described and brings such depth to the story. I think this was my favourite element of the book. Halls’s scene setting had me engaged in the story right from the start, and also taught me about a period of English history about which I had very little knowledge.

Fleetwood, the story’s heroine, is desperate to carry a child to term, and though she brings family money to her marriage, she has little power compared to her husband.  The way that he has benefited from her is clear throughout the story, and will leave you frustrated and angry on her behalf. She’s also incredibly young, and I found myself being reminded that she was only seventeen, and feeling quite horrified by what she was going through. But it does make for satisfying reading as Fleetwood starts to realise that she has more power than she imagined, and tries to work out how she can best wield it.

Whilst Fleetwood is a solid main character, I found myself less engaged with Alice, who I think was really the more interesting character. As the story is told from Fleetwood’s perspective, we only experience Alice through her eyes, and with there being so much mystery surrounding her, I did find myself somewhat unsatisfied by what felt like a lack of depth in her character development. She felt more like a plot device designed to move Fleetwood’s story along than a fully realised character in her own right. I found the same true of the other secondary characters, and for me, this meant the book wasn’t as enjoyable as it otherwise might have been.

The Familiars is a well-written, engaging historical novel about a fascinating period in English history, with a side of witchcraft. I loved the setting and the main character, though I did feel that the secondary characters lacked depth. However, overall, I really enjoyed this book and would definitely recommend it to anyone enjoys historical fiction focused on women of the time, plus witchcraft!

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