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BOOK REVIEW: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

| 15 March 2019 | Reply

BOOK REVIEW: The Familiars by Stacey Halls

Bonnier Zaffre
February 2019
Paperback, $29.99
Reviewed by Steph O’Connell

Historical Fiction / Magical Realism


‘Assured and alluring, this beautiful tale of women and witchcraft and the fight against power was a delight from start to finish’ – Jessie Burton, bestselling author of The Miniaturist.

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.


‘They burn witches, don’t they?’ he wheezed, pointing at the fire.
‘What?’ I stood, even more alarmed.
He pointed at my skirts. ‘They burn witches!’
Flames were licking the bottom of my gown. Puck began barking, and horror hit me with such force I was almost blind with it.


Fleetwood has always lived something of a lonely existence, not having any siblings, and finding it hard to make female friends, her husband Richard and French Mastiff Puck are her only real company.

I tended to keep at the top of the house, out of the way of everyone. If I had a baby in my arms or a child to take down to breakfast I might feel differently, but while I didn’t, I kept to my rooms and my wardrobe, with its pleasant view of the rushing River Calder and Pendle Hill.
‘Conversing with your clothes again?’ he said.
‘They are my constant companions.’

That said, Puck is always there to keep her company and protect her, and her relationship with her husband, despite its difficult moments, is rather heartwarming for 1612, when wives were to be seen and not heard.

When it got colder and we moved farther out to the fields and wide skies of Islington, I told him I’d grown used to the sounds of the Strand, and now wouldn’t be able to sleep because it was too quiet. He laughed and said I was far too spoiled and the only thing for it was for him to make the noises for me. Night after night, just as I was about to fall asleep, he neighed into the darkness, or gave the cry of a knife sharpener, or juggled like a coal seller pretending to scald his hands. I’d never laughed so much in all my life.

Amidst Fleetwood’s concerns about her latest pregnancy, and she meets Alice, who gives her female friendship for the first time, and hope that both she and her unborn child might both survive.

‘Women I know,’ she said.
‘Wise women?’
‘Most women are wise.’
I could not tell if she was teasing me. ‘Are they to be trusted?’
Alice gave me a look. ‘According to the king? No. He has driven them into the shadows, but people are still sick, and dying, and having children, and not everyone has a royal physick. The king has muddled wise women with witchcraft.’

Talk of witches, familiars, and accusations are sweeping across the land, preceding the arrival of the King’s own investigators. 

‘And have you tried a person for witchcraft before this year?’ I asked.
The pair looked at one another, considering for a moment.
‘Never. In fact,’ said Sir Edward, ‘this is the largest group of people to be tried for witchcraft in this county.’
He nodded. I could not help but glance at Roger, who had been waiting for his turn to speak.
‘They have successfully hidden themselves all over the country, until now,’ he announced. ‘It’s like catching mice: when you find one, you know there’s a nest. The king has long suspected Lancashire to be the hiding place of delinquents and sorcerers, so I am only happy to help root out the evil before it spreads and infects the rest of his kingdom, delivering it into your capable hands.’

And readers are witness, alongside Fleetwood, to the way people might jump to assumptions in order to share their own tale of encountering a witch.

‘What did they do?’
‘Oh.’ Roger waved a casual hand. ‘A horrible medley of things—dolls made of clay, spells, curses. Each of them has their own familiar spirit, which is proof enough.’
‘You saw their familiars?’ I asked, recalling that he had never seen Alizon’s with his own eyes.
‘I did not need to. I know they exist.’


The characters in this novel are based on real names that the author found in historical records from around the time of the Pendle Hill witch trials, and Halls does a wonderful job of fleshing them out, making us feel for them or rage at them (depending on which side they find themselves in regards to the witch trials), and establishing a suitably creepy and foreboding atmosphere for this historical period.

It’s hard not to feel for Fleetwood from the opening page, and likewise we want to believe that Alice has good intentions, and it speaks to this debut author’s skill that we find ourselves uncertain about the motives of the other characters, turning the pages with such speed to find out how things will work out for our girls. 

Unlike some stories that take place in the time of the witch trials, the trials here are almost an aside. We know they’re happening, and we get hints of the societal superstition throughout the book, but rather than that dictating their entire lives, it reaches them in snippets of gossip, at least until closer to the end. As the story progresses we see things increase in seriousness from a flippant remarks about witches to thinly-veiled threats that other characters might be accused, if they pushed too hard against the trials, showing just how powerless women were to defend themselves from such accusations. And yet, Fleetwood doesn’t give up.

There are some elements that sit a little oddly for this reader, but overall this was a rather impressive debut novel and an atmospheric and well-built look at the Pendle Hill witch trials. I will definitely be keeping an eye out for more works by this author.






Category: Book Reviews

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