It is 1612 and King James I and VI considers Lancashire a wild and unlawful place in need of taming. Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth of Gawthorpe Hall is with child and needs to produce a male heir to secure her position. The discovery of a letter written by a doctor to her husband Richard reveals that, after previous miscarriages, she will not survive another birth. Her pregnancy is already making her ill, but during a chance meeting in the woods with Alice Grey, a local midwife, she is given the chance of life. Alice promises Fleetwood she can safely deliver her and her baby, but this is a time when religious fervour comes into conflict with rural life, and one man’s thirst for power can ruin it all. Alice is soon accused of witchcraft and Fleetwood must risk everything to save them both.
Set against the backdrop of the Pendle Hill Witch Trials, Stacey Halls’ gothic mystery examines the limits of class and justice for seventeenth-century women. Using real-life historical figures and events Hall asks us to question the motives behind the witch hunts. Her characterisation of those accused is respectful – giving power and a sense of defiance to those no longer in control of their own destiny.
Hall delicately builds the level of suspense as the novel progresses and gives the reader just enough elements of the supernatural for them to question and second guess themselves. Is the fox with the amber eyes Alice’s familiar? Is it Alice herself? What is it about Jennet Device that is so unnerving? Hall makes us examine our own superstitions and, ultimately, whether those accused of witchcraft were guilty of such crimes or victims of the complexities of power politics in post-Reformation Europe.
Hall writes beautifully and her similes have the power to bewitch, drawing you in and not letting you go:
‘She’s dead! She’s dead! She’s dead!’
The words flew out like crows from a forest, echoing around the walls with nowhere to land.
Essentially this is a tale about friendship, courage and hope; a story that entrances you until you are fully submerged into a world of mystery, power and injustice.
4/5 Would definitely recommend.
The Familiars: A Novel by Stacey Hall
Genre: Historical fiction, gothic mystery.
Paperback: 384 pages
Publisher: MIRA; Original edition (October 1, 2019)