The Familiars by Stacey Halls is a fictional account leading up to the 1612 Pendle Witch Trials, featuring actual historical figures. Seventeen-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth becomes mistress of Gawthorpe Hall, near Pendle, and gets drawn into the controversy over her midwife’s, Alice Grey, alleged involvement with the “Pendle Witches” at Malkin Tower. I did know a bit about the Pendle Witch Trials prior to reading this novel, having watched a documentary about the subject, so it was interesting to read a ground-level, fictional account of this historical event.
When we first meet Fleetwood, we recognize that she is very much a young woman of her time and social class (which at times can be frustrating to a modern reader, particularly with Fleetwood’s relationship with her husband.) She is happy with her match of a husband of social standing, and wishes to please him by providing a male heir. However, having suffered two miscarriages, Fleetwood is desperate to hold on to her third pregnancy. She stumbles upon Alice Grey in the woods of the Gawthorpe property and soon finds that this enigmatic, “low-born” woman has knowledge of herbs and natural medicine, as well as midwifery.
Fleetwood and Alice soon form a sisterly bond of trust and familiarity in Alice’s successful minding of Fleetwood’s pregnancy, yet Alice seems to also hold Fleetwood at an arm’s length–leading Fleetwood to uncover Alice’s secrets. Not only does Fleetwood discover Alice’s alleged “involvement” with the Pendle Witches, but also the identities of the women accused of witchcraft at the hands of a power hungry Sheriff who was once like a father to Fleetwood.
Halls’ writing style makes for fast and engaging reading. Her descriptions are colorful and sensory, and the magical aspect of this novel is always on the periphery. We’re never given a full explanation of how Alice can do what she can do in terms of a familiar, nor does Fleetwood seem to press after she makes the connection. In turn, the end of the novel was quite abrupt, but features a brave move by Fleetwood which embodies the self-assured woman she has become as opposed to the fearful and eager to please young woman at the beginning of the novel. Not only is there a magical aspect to familiars, but also a more ordinary interpretation in that Fleetwood and Alice were familiars to each other.
The Familiars will be released February 19, 2019.