Book Review: The Familiars by Stacey Halls
Updated: Jun 26
Don’t you just love it when someone gifts you a book and they do a really good job of picking something for you that's amazing? It’s even better if it’s not a book you would pick yourself, and as you're reading you just get an overwhelming sense of, “Oh WOW, where has this been all my life?!” Presents are great, but book presents are best.
What first struck me about The Familiars by Stacey Halls was the amazing cover. I know, I know, you're not meant to judge a book by its cover, but HOW could you not want to read this book after staring at this cover?! The intricate details, the floral tapestry vibes. William Morris would have been proud. The cover gives high expectations for the story; you are met with the complicated imagery on the cover before you even read the first page. From looking at the cover, you know you're letting yourself in for a bumpy ride of a narrative.
The Familiars begins in 1612, where we meet a pregnant, 17 year-old Fleetwood. She’s nervous and scared after having lost her first three pregnancies, and needs this one to succeed in order to secure her place as Lady of the Shuttleworth estate. By chance, her luck seems to change when she meets Alice Gray wondering the woods near her home, who turns out to be a midwife from the local town. The two form a bond, a friendship Fleetwood has never had, and their lives become entwined, like the cover of the book! The story is set during the witch-hunts of King James I, where independent, single women are feared by society. Fleetwood's new friend Alice is caught up in the witch-hunts (Later dubbed the Pendle Hill witch trials), and Fleetwood has to use whatever societal power she has to try and save her friend, and her baby. A turbulent tale of two women's lives in 1612 England.
What I loved most about the book was that it’s a true story. Well, not a true story, but one based on the truth. Fleetwood was a real person, and so was Alice, and the Pendle Hill Witch Trials really did happen. I feel like Stacey Halls has really captured the essence of the era, displaying the lack of power women had in society, as well as the disillusionment people had towards people that didn’t conform to society's standards of normality. Reading it, you can see how the hysteria and fear of so-called witches must have swept the nation, driven by people's equal fear of seeming un-loyal to the King. There’s even a drama-troupe that visit Fleetwood and her husband at one point, and I love that they act out Macbeth, the epitome of how ‘witches' were viewed during this period of English history. I loved this element of realism layered throughout the fictional tale of Fleetwood and Alice. It makes you more compelled to keep reading, like looking through a looking-glass to a different period of history.
That being said, it has to be remembered that this is a fictional tale and not real. At some points it feels that the character of Alice is a little flat, like it would have been great if there was more background to her, more depth. Also, I would have enjoyed more insight into the witch trials themselves, with a more overview approach to the story, rather than the singular perspective of Fleetwood. This isn’t a historical re-telling, and cannot be viewed as being factually-sound. It is however, and enjoyable piece of historical fiction.
Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this book. It was great to read something a bit different, set in real historical setting, one which I hadn't previously heard of. I’m excited for Stacey Halls' new release in 2020, titled, The Foundling. You would enjoy The Familiars if you liked Burial Rites by Hannah Kent , or The Essex Serpant by Sarah Perry. Let me know if you've read The Familiars, and what your thoughts on it were!