25th Apr 2012
“I do think there is more point to historical novels, plays, and dramas than comfy cosy safeness, at least when they are done well. The best novels … plunge the reader into strange, vivid worlds you can practically smell, but the politicking and the personal relationships are very familiar. Just like the best speculative fiction in fact. It’s not just the frocks and the scenery, like every story, it’s the people.”
Well said, Catherine!
Karen Maitland could never be accused of being safe. Or cosy, for that matter. Her three medieval thrillers – The Company of Liars, The Owl Killers and The Gallows Curse – show us the past in all its grim, dirty, smelly, cold glory.
I’d had The Company of Liars on my shelf for about two years before I actually picked it up. I’m not sure what was stopping me – possibly the fact that the cover is nearly as creepy as the book itself – but the moment I did I was plunged into a world of secrets, superstition and plague.
A motley crew of travellers, led by a nameless trader in holy relics, try to outpace the plague that ravages England whilst the orphan child they’ve picked up tells their fortunes – and their pasts – with unnerving accuracy.
The novel is positively labyrinthine with twists and turns, but Maitland peppers her story with hints so subtle that you can miss them. I was delighted to have my lingering suspicion about one character confirmed, but I suspect I missed half a dozen other clues.
In The Owl Killers, a group of Beguines – all-female lay Christian communities – have set up home in an isolated village clinging to Pagan superstitions.
When their neighbours’ crops fail and theirs flourish, the villagers grow suspicious and they have to struggle to survive and avoid the punishment that the mysterious Owl Masters have prepared for them. Her deft portrayal of faith and power struggles between communities religious women equals Michele Roberts
The Gallows Curse is my least favourite of Maitland’s novels so far. It deals more overtly with magic than her previous work, and I think the book suffers for it.
There’s less sense of suspense, and the decision to have the plot narrated by the mandrake root that spurs the action on feels a bit indulgent.
Compared with the other two, it’s also weaker plot-wise, but that isn’t saying much – even at her worst, Maitland is one of the best storytellers to emerge in English fiction in the past few years.
She doesn’t gloss over the grimly patriarchal nature of medieval society, but that doesn’t stop her from writing complex, strong female characters with a story to tell, from the Beguine community in The Owl-Killers, to the little soothsayer in The Company of Liars.
I knew very little about the period before entering Maitland’s world, but I feel like I’ve picked up a lot without ever feeling like I was in a history lesson. She does exactly what Catherine Johnson talks about, creating strange, vivid worlds that overlap (sometimes uncomfortably) with our own.
Her fourth novel, A Falcon of Fire and Ice, is published in August. Will you be counting down the days until it’s published? Which other books by her have you read? Tell us in the comments!