Not only does The Familiars have one of the best named lead characters I’ve come across in a while BUT she is based on a real person! I live for facts like this. In 1612, there really was a noble woman called Fleetwood Shuttleworth (amazing, right?) who, at only 17, was lady of Gawthorpe Hall, Lancaster (now called Lancashire).
To write this story, Stacey Halls took real facts and blended them into a truly enticing fictional tale, told to us by Fleetwood. It centres around the controversial Pendle witch trials, where a group of women (and a few men) were convicted of being witches and hanged in 1612. I had heard of the Pendle witch trials before, they cropped up in another book I read, The Craftsman by Sharon Bolton (although that one has a contemporary setting verses The Familiars historic one) and the subject matter remains every bit as enticing.
Fleetwood has had three miscarriages and, finding herself pregnant again (desperate to give her husband a son and secure her legacy like any good 17th century wife of the gentry) she employs the services of Alice Grey, a local girl who has skills as a midwife. Alice also know her way around herbs and tinctures, and has been seen liaising with some women who are later arrested on the charge of witchcraft. Are Alice’s skills just a clever use herbs and plants, or is there more to it?
Given that Fleetwood is living in a time where women really had no say in anything, she is a little firecracker of a character who speaks mind, defends what she feels is right and has a passion that makes you root for her. Plus she has a massive dog, Puck, her faithful companion, some might say, her familiar…
I have to admit, as taken as I was by Fleetwood and the story, there was a section about 2/3rds of the way in where Fleetwood turned amateur sleuth and it all dragged a little, but the pace picked up again and the ending did not disappoint. This was an audiobook listen for me and I loved Katy Sobey’s narration in a gentle northern accent; it both set the scene and was a delight to listen to, really adding to my overall enjoyment of this captivating historical novel. A perfect book for this time of year!
/ Published by Zaffre 2019
/ Audiobook narrated by Katy Sobey
/ Running time: 9 hrs 06 mins
/ Rating: 4/5