The Gallows Curse by Karen Maitland

29th Mar 2011


Maitland has received great acclaim for her previous works and has been nominated for the Authors’ Club Best First Novel Award (for The White Room), the Waterstones Book of the Year (for Company of Liars, set in the time of the plague) and the 2009 Shirley Jackson Award (for the Dark Ages mystery The Owl Killers).

For those not up on their British Medieval history, the interdict was the period between 1208 and 1213 when Pope Innocent III, angered that King John refused to accept Stephen Langton’s appointment as Archbishop of Canterbury, banned priests from performing holy rituals.

In this atmosphere, sin becomes an almost tangible force, something that can weigh down the soul, something that can be bought or sold or passed on to an unsuspecting victim. It’s a fascinating setting for a book and Maitland takes full advantage of the possibilities it offers.

The passing on of sins and the effects on those who give and take them leads to a richly complex plot which twists and turns in ways that a hardened mystery reader will find surprising, not least because of the presence of magic in Maitland’s middle ages.

Though rooted in historical fact, the magical charms and conjurations sometimes strike an odd chord when placed next to the real-world political intrigue of the time. It is interesting that the magic is largely left to the female characters where as politics and warfare are, naturally, left to the men.

There are other moments during the book that shatter the reader’s sense of immersion, which is a shame because Maitland creates a fantastically tangible world, capturing the sights and smells (especially the smells) of everyday life of the time.

The dialogue is occasionally problematic; few readers could be expected to be able to read Chaucerian Middle English, but when the heroine uses jarringly modern terms like “making love” and “sleeping with” to refer to sex with the man she is in love with, it can have the effect of breaking the illusion.

Discussions of human sexuality also risk drifting into bodice-ripper territory and the contrast between how love scenes and brothel scenes are described borders on parodic on occasion.

The reader is occasionally reminded in passing in the main text that the omniscient third-person narrator is, in fact, an object, which can also be distracting.

However, the trick is very effective and actually quite spooky in the introduction and in the interspersed extracts from The Mandrake’s Herbal, further establishing the culture and beliefs of the time.

The ideas of revenge and simplistic morality, which are also integral to the reader’s understanding of the piece, backfire slightly during the resolution since it fails to deliver the satisfying bloody justice and redemption that we might have come to expect.

This isn’t to say that this wasn’t an entertaining book. The Gallows Curse is a beautifully crafted tale that kept me guessing as I ploughed through its pages. A gripping, occasionally gruesome, distraction.

The Gallows Curse is available now from Michael Joseph. Buy it in paperback for £8.43, or for Kindle for £8.99.

Rating: 3/5

Recommended for: Those with goth tendencies who fancy a break from sexy vampires.

Recommended reading: If your appetite is whetted for the shadowy and pungent world of the Middle Ages there is a wealth of material out there. Check out Susanna Gregory’s Matthew Bartholomew series or The Rose of the World by Alys Clare.

Lucinda Chell


  • Jess says:

    Karen Maitland, oh how I love her. Company of Liars fell down at the end, but The Owl Killers was unbelievably good.