Stacey Halls’s debut novel, The Familiars, concerns the Pendle witch trials which occurred in Lancashire in 1612. It’s a topic Hall has always been fascinated with, according to her author blurb, and it shows. The novel is well-researched and instead of taking the easy path and writing a story around her own made-up characters, virtually all the book’s personnel really existed.
First off there is Fleetwood Shuttleworth – a seventeen-year-old noblewoman, whose main role in life is to produce an heir. She’s had three miscarriages already, and just when she begins to feel she might be pregnant again, she finds a doctor’s letter to husband Richard to say that giving birth is likely to kill her.
Still pale and sickly from her last miscarriage, Fleetwood is helped by her unexpected friendship with midwife Alice Grey and gradually she begins to hope she may survive to be a mother. But when Alice is accused of witchcraft and murder, Fleetwood has to fight back if she wants to save both her friend and her own life.
The tension never lets up in this novel and the reader is immediately aware of the perils of being a woman in this period. You get a real sense of the politics of the era, in which King James I, recently having produced an English translation of the Bible, is eager to uphold Protestantism in his realm. How better to do this than snuff out the pockets of Catholicism and so-called devil worship in remote areas like Lancashire.
‘Wise women’, such as Alice, were at the mercy of local nobles, such as the sheriff, and even Fleetwood’s husband, eager for social betterment and status at court. And in the middle of it all is Fleetwood, from a young age a victim of a lonely childhood and abuse. How she develops the determination to make and carry through a plan drives the plot. It’s certainly a battle of the underdog. In the background is enough period detail to add interest without bogging down the story, while there is a ton of atmosphere in the vagaries of nature, and Fleetwood’s own moods and nightmares – remember she’s just a teenager, after all.
I was a little worried that having written about her pet subject – the Pendle witches – Stacey Halls might put her novel-writing pen away. I am happy to say that she has another book (The Foundling) due out next year. The Familiars earns four out of five stars from me.