I’ll be honest, there were two reasons why I picked up The Familiars by Stacey Hall: the book was about £3 on Amazon and the front cover is absolutely stunning! Also, I had heard from a fair few people that it’s actually a really good book. But what are my thoughts on the actual words on the page?
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The Familiars is about Fleetwood Shuttleworth, the wife of a wealthy and respected man who has had failed births in the past and is holding on to her last hope in her latest pregnancy. She fears she may no longer be of use to her husband if she can’t give birth and so takes in a woman by the name of Alice who nobody is really sure of and who some people think is a witch.
The Familiars plot – 3/5
I really wanted to like The Familiars plot – I liked the historical setting (it’s set in the early 1600s when the witch trials were happening) and it’s all about the suspicion of witches. However, despite the intriguing idea I’ve set out above, it just never really felt like it got going.
We hear from the point of view of Fleetwood Shuttleworth who is a woman who has married into a lot of wealth. She essentially tells the tale of her struggles giving birth and how she feels like she may be failing her husband and how she is now beginning to feel severe pressure to give birth and provide for her husband (very archaic). One day she meets a woman in the woods who tells her of her abilities as a healer and as a midwife. Alice (the lady she meets in the woods) is hardly a gentrified midwife, so everyone has their suspicions about her. This is all going on as women across the country are being trialled for witchcraft which results in them being burnt.
I’ll be honest, I kept waiting for something to happen. There were small moments about 2/3 of the way through the book, the action does ramp up a little bit but it quickly sizzles out again. It felt more to me like a really uninteresting period drama, more about the need to remain rich and remain respectable in front of others. I wanted more witchcraft, more scary scenes, and maybe even some suggestions of fantasy and magic. But no. I got to the final page and felt like I must have missed half of the book as I was still waiting for something else to happen.
The Familiars characters – 4/5
I think a four is generous but I also feel like a three here would have been harsh. The Familiars has two main characters, Alice and Fleetwood (I still can’t get over what an odd first name this is, but hey ho) and I feel like there was potential for there to be a blossoming and beautiful friendship here. However, I never felt them truly click. There are moments where the author is trying to make you feel like you’ve read a beautiful relationship but you’re just constantly reminded how dull and elusive Alice is. Fleetwood is more interesting – she has passion and bite and is willing to stand up for women in a time when they very much had their place in society.
Other characters such as Roger and Richard hover around, acting as accompaniments to the plot. Richard seems like a nice enough husband – I was fully expecting him to be brutal and mean but he did seem kind and do want the best for Fleetworth but was also battling with his reputation and appearing calm and respectable to his peers.
The Familiars by Stacey Hall overall rating – 3/5
I was really underwhelmed by The Familiars – I was constantly wanting something interesting to happen or for a genuinely likeable relationship to blossom, but neither happened. The historical setting and the theme of witches had a lot of potential but weren’t utilised properly, resulting in a rather dull and forgettable book for me.