So, I’m part of a few bookclubs on Instagram, and one of them, the @theliterarysagebookclub’s fantasy pick for this month, was ‘The Familiars’ by Stacey Hall. The book has been on my to-be-read list for a while – perhaps a few years, after I saw it in Waterstones one day but didn’t purchase it. I held off… maybe this was the reason why. So I’d get a copy secondhand (that looks pretty brand new by the way) from World of Books, and read it for the Literary Sage’s August Bookclub.
With Young Adult vibes and certainly put nicely into the historical fiction genre, I thought I would really enjoy it. There’s a hint of fantasy, but not as much as I thought there would be.
But anyway. Onto my review.
Young Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a noblewoman, is with child again. None of her previous pregnancies have borne fruit, and her husband, Richard, is anxious for an heir. Then Fleetwood discovers a hidden doctor’s letter that carries a dire prediction: she will not survive another birth. By chance she meets a midwife named Alice Grey, who promises to help her deliver a healthy baby. But Alice soon stands accused of witchcraft.
Is there more to Alice than meets the eye? Fleetwood must risk everything to prove her innocence. As the two women’s lives become intertwined, the Witch Trials of 1612 loom. Time is running out; both their lives are at stake. Only they know the truth. Only they can save each other.
There’s a mix of genres in this book. It’s clearly historical fiction, but with hints at Young Adult and Fantasy, enough to keep me intrigued. And when I first heard of the book, I was intrigued, and the synopsis seemed interesting. I’d heard a lot of good things, a lot of people enjoying the book, so all fingers pointed towards a great read.
Now, I sadly have to admit, this wasn’t a great read. It was a good read, don’t get me wrong, but I wasn’t bowled over by it. I just didn’t get pulled in by the drama. In fact, to be honest, all of it felt a bit flat for me. It felt like a fairly bland Young Adult novel masquerading as historical fiction. The only fantasy elements were the hints at witchery and a few animals appearing, who were generally invisible to anyone but their witch companions.
I’ve read better books about witch trials, and witches in general (I’ll mention them at the end of this review). This was, to me, more a women’s fiction, though it did showcase the relationships between them and the men around them, the sign of the times and the lack of freedom women had in the 17th Century, all the while with the looming threat of arrest if you were called out as a witch.
There were a few shocking moments, I must admit. One I did not see coming, so that in itself pulled the book back from the brink of dislike. I actually markedly respected Fleetwood by the end of the book, while at the beginning I thought she was a dull, naive teenager swept up in her comfortable life as mistress of a great home, completely blind to anyone but herself. And yes, it was awful the fact she had gone through three failed pregnancies – that did pull at the heartstrings. But it probably took about a quarter of the book before I started to get pulled into her life and see her in a different light. She’s not whiny at all, which is in her favour, instead showing her courage and determination by the end of the book.
Alice Gray was, I felt, a stranger to me for much of the book. But I think that was the point – we moved through the book looking through Fleetwood’s eyes, discovering more about Alice as we went along. I think the way it was written was to show how both our eyes, as well as Fleetwood’s were opened to see the nature of strife that women were going through. Yes, the author did that very well.
I wasn’t enamoured by the men in the book. Richard, Fleetwood’s husband was probably the best male character and even he had his secrets and lies. No, I don’t think Stacey Hall wanted us to focus on the male characters too much, and if we did, it was to see them as power-hungry, violent, filled with malice, or even just plain cowardly. The book is all about the women, the strength of them even in a time when showing power as a woman could cost you your life.
Overall, it was a good book. The more I think about it, the more depth I see that the author tried to convey but a little jaggedly and not quite strong enough. Generally, I found it to be an ok read.
I give it 3 out of 5 stars.
Here’s some other books about witches that I’d recommend:
- ‘The Witch Finder’s Sister’ by Beth Underdown
- ‘The Winter Witch’ by Paula Brackston
- ‘Witch Child’ by Celia Rees
- ‘A Discovery of Witches’ by Deborah Harkness
Kate @ Kandid Chronicles x