I just finished listening to The Familiars by Stacy Halls, narrated by Billie Fulford-Brown and was compelled to immediately write a review. 4 ⭐️ from me! The first few chapters, I was unsure if this was going to be for me. It started off leisurely and was a slow build. By a quarter way through, I was thoroughly intrigued. By halfway through, I was hungry for more. I love historical fiction and the witch hunts are especially interesting and heartbreaking.
Fleetwood is the lady of a noble house and is pregnant. This is her last ditch, last hope attempt for a viable pregnancy and a united family. Fleetwood finds a letter addressed to her husband from a doctor that states that his wife will die if she attempts to give birth again. Bravely, Fleetwood takes her and her child’s life into her own hands. She encounters a young lady, Alice, who gives her hope. Fleetwood has had midwives before, but they were entirely unpleasant and obedient to her husband’s wishes. She’s convinced that in a flourishing environment, with a woman who is attentive to her needs and not her husband’s wishes, that her and her child can survive. Slowly but surely, she builds a friendship and a trust between herself and Alice.
At the same time, a witch-hunt is sweeping the nation, led by their power hungry family friend, Roger. Fleetwood is thriving in her pregnancy under the care of Alice’s knowledge of herbs and remedies. It isn’t long before Alice is accused of witch craft, as most intelligent, capable women were in those times. Soon begins Fleetwood’s race to save Alice, and in turn, her baby and herself.
This story is one of betrayal, of strength in impossible times, of the perseverance of women in a world that expects little of them. Things aren’t what they seem in this book. Fleetwood’s seemingly progressive husband, Richard, isn’t Prince Charming. He is another man in a world and time saturated with men who believe their women are possessions, that their indiscretions are a God-given right, that a knowledgeable woman is a dangerous woman. And to that last point, they are right. Women ARE dangerous when taking hold of their full abilities. Dangerous to male ego and pride. Dangerous to the people who have wronged them, holding them accountable to their actions. I won’t go too much into Richard’s story because there’s a major plot line that I think is better discovered by oneself.
Fleetwood knows that women were convicted of witch craft because their intelligence threatened the men around them. Wise-women who had knowledge of herbs and natural remedies and applied them more aptly than the nearby apothecaries threaten the business of men. Mid-wives who pay attention to the female body and needs are dangerous because they are for the goodness of THE WOMEN, and not the master of the house. Men who craved power knew that the forged demise of a few women was the safer route than hard work, or the challenging of another man. Why not take the easy route? Women were little more worth than a household servant to the men, their word holds no value. Fleetwood shows incredible bravery by challenging the men around her. To do this is completely out of her comfort zone. She has spent her life under the finger of everyone around her. She doesn’t even have the heart to ask her paid servants to do anything for her. She is under the complete authority of others. So to see her fight for herself, her child, and another woman, was heartwarming. She took journeys alone, she championed for Alice to powerful men who could have easily convicted HER of witchcraft for even doing so. Fleetwood is delivered blow after blow by life but builds herself in determination with those blows. I think it’s worth it to mention that there were a lot of women in that time who were content to be nothing more than the lady of a house, who were conditioned to accept the judgement of a male meekly and without a fight. Those women were content to let other women fall under the guise of witchcraft because it kept them safe. If they scorned “witchcraft” and the woman accused, they could keep living their comfortable lives. Fleetwood is willing to sacrifice that for what is right. One of the big risks at this time is being a women with an animal companion, hence The Familiars title. Witches were “known” to have a familiar, and Fleetwood has a dog that constantly trails her. It’s even more courageous of her to fight for other women when she has so many traits that could condemn her.
Speaking on the topic of familiars, do you think men were afraid of compassion, especially in that time? I know it was seen as a sign of weakness. But the same thing that makes women good mothers, compassion and an internal instinct, is the same thing that draws animals to them. Compassionate women tend to care for and own animals. They are wise-women, midwives, people who care about the wellbeing of those around them. I’m sure this is why many *witches* were seen with *familiars*. I think compassionate women were a risk for men, who felt they needed a hard heart to rise in life. Who couldn’t be seen with any “feminine” qualities. A woman who treated all people and things with respect and care, confounded their view that MEN were the most important, the elite. As you can see, The Familiars was a very thought-provoking book for me.
The star I knocked off was for the tepid beginning. Unfortunately, I can see many people DNFing if they’re the type of person to put down a book that doesn’t grab them in the first chapter or so. And they’d be missing out on a great book if so. Another reason it wasn’t five stars for me, was Richard. It’s discouraging to see male characters pay no price and get their whole life paved out exactly the way they would like. Is this unreasonable for that time? Not at all. This is historical fiction, after all. A man paying for misdeeds against a woman is entirely unlikely. A female character as strong as Fleetwood deserves more than him, though. During the author’s note, I found out that these characters were actually real people that this was loosely based on. So it’s a bit unfair for me to expect anything different, anyway. But still… eff you, Richard.
Here’s to all of the midwives out there, to the women climbing ladders of success, to the women who crave knowledge and actively seek it, to the women who embrace our rights and fight for them. You’re doing your ancestors proud. They sacrificed for you. Don’t let them down.