I’m drawn to historical novels about witchcraft, so The Familiars by Stacey Halls seemed like a novel I’d absolutely love. I’ve read quite a few books about the witch hunts of the Middle Ages, but this was the first one I picked up that dealt specifically with the Pendle Hill witch trials in the early part of the 17th century. I was immediately captivated by the author’s lush prose and the authentic characters she created, but when I was about two-thirds of the way through, things imploded, leaving me more than a little dismayed.
Fleetwood Shuttleworth is a young woman living with her husband on his family estate near Pendle Hill in England. She and Richard have been married for a few years at the time the story opens, and although Fleetwood has been pregnant several times, she has never managed to carry an infant to term, a fact that distresses her greatly. She knows how much Richard wants a son to carry on the family name, and she’s afraid he’ll cast her out if she is unable to perform her wifely duties. One afternoon, as she is looking through some papers given to her by her husband’s steward, she finds a note from a local doctor, telling Richard that she will not survive her next pregnancy. Fleetwood is terrified by this news. She has no memory of ever seeing this doctor; she assumes he must have treated her after her last miscarriage but she simply cannot recall him. She has just recently begun to suspect that she might once again be with child, so the contents of this letter are especially devastating.
She decides to go for a walk to clear her head, and while she’s roaming the Shuttleworth estate, she catches sight of a bedraggled woman carrying a dead rabbit through the woods. Assumimg this stranger has been poaching from her husband’s land, Fleetwood rebukes her harshly and the woman runs off. Fleetwood is understandably preoccupied with her own troubles, so doesn’t give the odd encounter any further thought.
Several days later, she is thrown from her horse while on a leisurely ride. Fearing for her unborn child, she asks one of the servants to summon a midwife – and when she arrives, Fleetwood is startled to see that it’s the woman she’s assumed was a poacher. She’s not sure it’s wise to be examined by someone of such poor character, but she’s desperate to know if her child still lives and so she allows the woman to examine her.
Fleetwood learns the midwife’s name is Alice Grey, and for reasons she doesn’t completely understand, finds herself drawn to Alice. She explains her history of miscarriages, and Alice assures her that she will help her to bring this child into the world. Fleetwood is strangely comforted by Alice’s confidence, and she begins to wonder if the doctor could have been wrong about her odds of survival.
Over the next few months, Fleetwood and Alice meet several more times. Fleetwood’s pregnancy is progressing normally, and she attributes this to Alice’s great skill, so when Alice and several other local women are arrested and imprisoned for being witches, Fleetwood is desperate to free them. Of course, this doesn’t turn out to be as easily accomplished as Fleetwood expects it to be, and it soon becomes apparent that everyone around her is keeping dangerous secrets.
The first two-thirds of the story fulfilled all of my expectations. Fleetwood is strong, loyal, and resourceful, exactly the kind of heroine I love to read about. She works hard to get what she wants, but she does it in a way that makes sense for the time in which she lives. Her marriage to Richard isn’t great, but neither is it horrible, and I could empathize with her desire to bear him a son.
Then, things get crazy and Fleetwood begins acting in ways that simply do not make sense. She convinces her husband to allow her to speak out in Alice’s defense, something I couldn’t imagine a noblewoman of the time being able to do. She has many impassioned discussions with local officials, rides all over the countryside even though she has been told riding might negatively impact her pregnancy, and manages to bully people into making statements to prove Alice’s innocence. Her behavior is incredibly erratic, and it was hard to believe she was the same woman I had been cheering on earlier in the story. Some readers might find Fleetwood’s actions heroic, but they felt melodramatic to me, and I found myself growing frustrated by her behavior
I was also quite dismayed by the novel’s reliance on coincidence. I understand that certain things need to happen in order to move the story forward, and I’m willing to accept a certain amount of coincidence for this reason. However, it works best if the author is able to come up with compelling explanations to make these serendipitous events more palatable for the reader – and unfortunately, Ms. Halls wasn’t able to do this, so I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief enough to just go with the flow of the story.
Things end up working out for Fleetwood, Alice, and Richard, but I didn’t come away from the book feeling satisfied. Instead, I felt cheated, like the author had taken some shortcuts in order to achieve a happy ending. It’s not that I wanted things to end differently, but I would have preferred a conclusion that didn’t feel so contrived.
If you don’t mind a lot of melodrama in your fiction, you might enjoy The Familiars more than I did. It definitely has a strong beginning, and it’s certainly possible that the ending won’t bother others as much as it bothered me. Still, it’s not a book I can recommend.