The Familiars is set in 17th-century Lancashire. It tells the story of the trial of the Pendle witches from the point of view of Fleetwood, a young, pregnant woman and member of the local gentry. Married for several years, she has had a number of miscarriages and stillbirths, and is desperate for a living baby. When already-pregnant for the fourth time, she reads a letter addressed to her husband, which says that the bearing of another child will kill her. By chance Fleetwood meets Alice, a local midwife, who says that she can save Fleetwood and the baby, but then the accusations of witchcraft begin. Who should Fleetwood trust: the husband and mother who have, in her eyes, already betrayed her, or the young woman accused of consorting with the Devil?
This is an evocative first novel, which follows Fleetwood’s emotional turmoil as she struggles with love, betrayal, the fear of death and a friendship which, according to the dictates of class and respectability, should not be. It also skilfully depicts the increasing paranoia about witches sweeping Lancashire during the early 17th century – and the political machinations behind that fear. Above all, it is a novel about women: their power and powerlessness; the often-complex relationship between mother and child, and about friendships that blossom even where they should not.
Halls has produced a thought-provoking and enjoyable historical novel. Recommended.