The Familiars is in many ways a modern gothic romance set against the backdrop of the Lancashire witch trials. It tells of seventeen-year-old Fleetwood Shuttleworth’s plight to provide an heir for Gawthorpe Hall after three unsuccessful pregnancies. She enlists the help of a mysterious local wise woman – Alice Grey – who later becomes one of the accused victims. After a string of dangerous adventures, however, things reach a satisfactory conclusion.
Unlike other recent books on the Pendle Witches, Stacey Halls chooses a minor, overlooked historical character as her focal point. Alice Grey is a midwife who may or may not be associated with a familiar in the guise of a red fox, though any magic we see her perform is practical herbalism rather than supernatural spell-casting. Yet we experience Alice through the eyes of Fleetwood Shuttleworth, a privileged narrator far removed from the violence and poverty of the accused witches, who only rushes to help the midwife for personal gain. Halls’ description of the Well Tower in Lancaster Castle is the closet we get to understanding the harrowing ordeal that these real prisoners went through. But having read some of the early reviews, such sanitizing of historical unpleasantness may be necessary for the modern squeamish reader.
The Familiars is an enjoyable story based on the few facts known about the events of 1612. I particularly liked the thoughtful observation that bearbaiting in London was popular because the bloodthirsty townsfolk did not get a chance to hunt!
Halls’ historical research is sound, the setting well-crafted, and the characters consistent with the gothic romance genre. This novel will appeal to readers who want to taste what living through a witch hunt may have been like, but without any graphic information.