Disclosure: I received a copy of this book free of charge for review purposes only. Receipt of a book does not guarantee a review or endorsement. My reviews are my honest opinion and are not biased for the purpose of personal gain.
In 1612, young Fleetwood Shuttleworth is pregnant for the fourth time, but still not a mother. On discovering a doctor’s note stating she will not survive this time, Fleetwood seeks out a midwife, Alice Grey. As Fleetwood starts to feel better under the care of this local woman, rumours of witches in the area gather. When Alice is suspected by the power-hungry local magistrate, Fleetwood will do anything to save her.
The Pendle witch trials were England’s most infamous witch hunt, with more women convicted than anywhere else. Stacey Halls has woven a fantastic debut novel around the sparse facts. The characters are real people, known through records and not much else. She has also chosen wisely in Alice, where certain records were lost to history, so she is free to make up a new story for her.
Not for the first time, I wondered what the darkness felt like when you were half in the light. I think I may have come close to it before, but the pain anchored me to the earth.
Poor Fleetwood, married off young and now terrified that this pregnancy will be the death of her. I am very glad to be alive now, with the wonders of modern medicine, as well as the right to independence. I appreciated that her husband Richard was mostly kind to her, so often in these stories the marriage is abusive. Her role was to be a mother, and she had no other choices. In comparison, the poorer women who made lives for themselves were accused of witchcraft.
At the start, the magistrate, Roger, is their friend, bringing with him scandalous tales of witchcraft which introduces the historical facts. But it becomes apparent that he is on a mission to convict as many witches as he can. At one point, even Fleetwood is threatened, she has a large dog that goes everywhere with her, it would be easy to say it was her familiar.
Roger doesn’t do things by halves – he’s not content with sending a whole family to trial, oh no. He wants the glory days back; he wants his name in the London pamphlets. I swear he’s after a knighthood. He is already known at court, but he won’t stop there. You know him as well as I.
Alice, like many women who were accused of witchcraft, treated the poor with herbal remedies, at a time when many wouldn’t have had access to doctors. Indeed the doctors might have done more harm that good. Certainly they weren’t comforting to Fleetwood.
The story slowly builds the fragile friendship between mistress and midwife. It highlights their differences in position, as Fleetwood comes to terms with the inequality between them. I liked the hint that the familiars could have been real, that maybe they were witches, but it was still left as historically plausible.
A stunning red fox fixed me with its wide amber eyes and placed a hesitant paw on the grass. We stared at one another, and time stood still.
Whilst I recognised Alice Grey’s name, I wasn’t sure of her fate and was gripped right up until the end, with Fleetwood’s race against time to save the one woman she thinks can save her life.
The Familiars is published by Bonnier Zaffre and is available now in hardback and ebook editions. Thanks go to the publisher for providing a copy for review.
POPSUGAR Reading Challenge: 38. A novel based on a true story
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