About the Book
Lancashire, 1612. Fleetwood Shuttleworth is 17 years old, married, and pregnant for the fourth time. But as mistress of 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.
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 Pendle witch trials approach, and Fleetwood¹s 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.
Format: Hardcover (432 pp) Publisher: Zaffre
Publication date: 7th February 2019 Genre: Historical Fiction
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The Familiars is a tale of superstition, ignorance and misogyny that sees ‘wise women’ skilled in herbal medicine and midwifery accused of witchcraft for political gain and royal favour, or because they are a convenient target to blame for natural events such as crop failures or for unexpected deaths. As the book’s heroine, Fleetwood Shuttleworth, observes about local magistrate, Roger Nowell, the chief instigator of the accusations, “Roger is on a witch hunt. He is collecting women like cards at a table”.
At the same time it’s also a story of personal betrayal, as Fleetwood will discover. A battle of wills ensues – between Fleetwood and her husband Richard, between Fleetwood and Roger Nowell, and between Fleetwood and her mother – as she fights for her rights, her independence, her very future even. She is also forced into action to try to save her midwife, Alice, from suffering the same fate as the other unfortunate women under suspicion. Full disclosure: throughout I was one hundred percent Team Fleetwood, even if I did marvel at her ability to travel the countryside on horseback even when heavily pregnant.
From the moment of their first strange encounter, Fleetwood and Alice form an unlikely friendship. Although they occupy very different positions in society, they share a common bond and have similar stories, namely of misuse by men. Friendship soon turns into dependency as Fleetwood becomes convinced her life, and that of her unborn child, are inextricably linked to the fate of Alice. ‘We were bound together in some dreadful destiny, and it was clearer now than ever that to survive, we needed one another just as equally, and just as desperately.’
There are hints of the supernatural throughout the book with the reader never entirely sure if Alice’s powers are simply those of a skilled healer or something more. The inclusion of a strange child, Jennet Device, Fleetwood’s disturbing nightmares and unsettling night time visitations to her chamber by an unidentified ‘something’ all add to the sense of unease.
The vivid descriptions of the landscape surrounding Gawthorpe over which our splendidly named heroine loves to wander matches the book’s gorgeous dust jacket. I liked the fact that the cover design cleverly incorporates elements from the story. The author’s research is also evident in the detailed descriptions of food (oyster pie or salmon poached in beer with pickled herring anyone?), costume and furnishings.
I was interested to learn from the book’s Historical Note that Fleetwood Shuttleworth and numerous other characters in the book existed in real life. If I’m honest I expected the Pendle witch trials to feature more prominently in the story. However, in using her imagination to bring to life Fleetwood and Alice, the author has created an atmospheric and compelling story of life in 17th century Lancashire.
I received a review copy courtesy of Zaffre Books and Readers First.
In three words: Atmospheric, magical, assured
Try something similar: Widdershins by Helen Steadman (read my review here)
About the Author
Stacey Halls grew up in Rossendale, Lancashire and has always been fascinated by the Pendle witches. She lives in London and has worked as a journalist for Stylist, Psychologies and Fabulous. The Familiars is her first novel. (Photo credit: author website)