The Familiars by Stacey Halls
My rating: 3 ½ Stars
Genre: Fantasy mixed with Historical Fiction
Premise: This is partially based on the true story of the Lancashire (Pendle Hill) Witch Trials told from the perspective of the young Fleetwood, a relatively newly appointed mistress of Gawthorpe Hall. When Fleetwood discovers a letter, hidden by her husband, stating that her life would be in peril if she became pregnant again, she feels she has no-one to turn to. Then almost out of the blue, she hires an intriguing young lady named Alice to become her midwife.
I often think it’s useful to see an extract of a book to get an idea of the writing style. Here is a brief extract so that you can see a sample of the writing yourself:
‘You are young for a midwife,’ I said instead.
‘I learnt from my mother. She was a midwife. The best, actually.’
I felt the doctor’s words tighten once again around my neck, and with my good hand I adjusted my dirt-spattered collar.
‘When you say you know it to look at a woman with child?’ I asked. ‘Are you ever wrong?’
‘Sometimes,’ Alice replied, but I sensed she was lying.
Viewpoint: The novel is written from the viewpoint of Fleetwood and I think the author does a great job of conveying Fleetwood’s desperation and naivety in her male-dominated world. She often feels frustrated and powerless, yet instinctively protective of her unborn child and as the novel progresses Alice.
Character(s): The main characters are Fleetwood, Alice, Fleetwood’s husband Richard and a local lord named Roger.
The growing friendship between Alice and Fleetwood is lovely and develops nicely as the story progresses. The growing animosity between Fleetwood and Roger is also captured very well. The most frustrating relationship for me was between Fleetwood and her husband Richard. I cannot say too much more without giving away some of the endings but I felt this needed to be explored more.
Setting: A lot of the settings in this book are brilliantly described and really capture the imagination. It is this aspect of the historical storyline that I loved, the description of the house, the nearby woodland, her mother’s smaller household, Alice’s childhood home and various inn’s. These were often filled with rich detailed descriptions which I thoroughly enjoyed. However, as a few other reviewers of this book have commented, the storyline regularly includes large journeys on horseback that seem to have taken place in unreasonable time-frames (and questionable in Fleetwood’s pregnant state). I understand the need for these visits as they do drive the story along but are somewhat distracting.
Any Negatives: The immediate trust in Alice by Fleetwood is questionable. She goes from being a complete stranger to her confident and midwife. However, after this happens the book begins to get going.
I also felt the book could have done with a little more about the shapeshifters/familiars from which it takes its title. It was briefly mentioned with little nods to it but overall this seemed lacking.
Overall View: I’ll be honest I was initially lured into this book by the pretty cover (I know, I know, the shame!). Overall I am glad I did, I did enjoy this book and I will look for more of this author’s work in future, but I just wanted a little bit more from this book. It was a little slow to start (but often historical fiction novels are). The time-period was captured brilliantly. I particularly enjoyed all the little ties and hints about the witch trial and would have liked to have more of that detail included. I enjoyed the way the two main characters developed together and the protectiveness of Fleetwood of her friend was really felt. An enjoyable, pleasant read.
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