At the beginning of The Familiars, by Stacey Halls, gentlewoman Fleetwood Shuttleworth believes that she is doomed. She has just found a letter in her husband’s study from a doctor saying that another pregnancy will be fatal. She is early in a fourth pregnancy and already suffering from severe morning sickness. But in her eyes, what makes this letter even worse is that her husband didn’t tell her about it.
Set in 1612(ish), Fleetwood is a very young wife who has been under pressure to produce a Shuttleworth heir from her marriage to Richard Shuttleworth at age 13. Fleetwood is sheltered and left too much on her own in her remote Lancashire house. Perhaps it’s not unusual then, that Fleetwood latches on to the only person she believes might see her safely through childbirth. The only problem is that Alice Gray, Fleetwood’s newly found midwife, is about to be accused of being a witch in the middle of a growing witch-hunting frenzy.
Fleetwood, at the beginning of The Familiars, is the kind of character who arouses pity. You just want to take her under your wing and protect her from the other more worldly-wise characters. Alice appears to be the strong one. She lives rough, scrapping for herself and her drunkard father. But as the witch-hunt grows, Alice gets caught up in the web of accusations and its Fleetwood’s turn to be the strong savior.
The Familiars grew on me as I read it. In addition to a tense plot line, this novel touches on women’s rights, the demonization of women practicing medicine, mass hysteria, Jacobean politics, betrayal, and marriage. It was a surprise when the book was over in just over 350 pages; this book is just stuffed enough to feel like a full meal without cramming in too much. This is a solid, strongly feminist work of historical fiction.
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via Edelweiss.