Like Karen Maitland’s other two books, Company of Liars and The Owl Killers (both great, by the way), this is a complex, labyrinthine mystery set in medieval England. The Interdict of 1208 forms the background for the plot, which concerns two main characters. The first is Elena, a 15-year-old serving girl who becomes a runaway, and later finds herself tricked into prostitution, after she’s accused of killing her own baby. The second is Raffaelle, a tortured, revenge-hungry lord who is forced out of his manor by the brothers he holds responsible for his own agonies during the Crusades, as well as those of his late best friend and master Gerard. There are twists, turns and deaths galore as Raffaelle and Elena; both separately and together, attempt to outwit the treacherous Osborn and Hugh, making plenty of friends and enemies along the way.
Having enjoyed the author’s previous novels so much, I expected a lot from The Gallows Curse, and it didn’t disappoint. The characters are wonderful. Elena seems to be a bit of a cliché at first (innocent, beautiful young girl who has just about every tragedy possible thrown at her and survives despite the odds) but I found myself warming to her more and more as the story went on. As you see the horror and loneliness of life as a runaway villain and an unwilling whore through Elena’s eyes, you end up rooting for her to make it through and get revenge on her tormentors. In Raffaelle, meanwhile, Maitland has created a fascinating, flawed, contradictory antihero and probably my favourite character of all the books I’ve read recently. He’s simultaneously repulsive and entrancing, hateful and heroic. He does some awful and some great things; he pays dearly for his sins and for attempting to selflessly help others, but it’s impossible to ignore the fact that many of his actions are motivated purely by his lust for Elena. Yet I ended up feeling more sympathy for the character than I would have, had he been unbelievably ‘perfect’.
The glimpses into the characters’ pasts and memories are fantastic, and really make the whole story feel fleshed out. The plot has everything – violent deaths, sexual deviance, witchcraft, spying/treason, prophetic dreams, a collection of caged exotic animals, shed-loads of dark secrets and plenty of daring escapes, all against the backdrop of a 13th-century England depicted so vividly you can almost taste it. I love the way Maitland works elements of the supernatural into the plot without fanfare, so seamlessly you can easily believe magical beings and powerful witches really existed as part of everyday life back in medieval times (the story is part-narrated by a mandrake, and one of many subplots involves a pair of cunning women with an ancient grudge). What’s more, the action-packed ending is a knockout. If there are flaws, they’re to do with repetition in the language. The characters utter the same curses over and over again (God’s blood, Satan’s arse etc…), and the words ‘stench’ and ‘stink’ are repeated way too much – we get it, the Middle Ages weren’t particularly fragrant. But overall, such minor flaws didn’t do much to dent my enjoyment of the book overall.
While at first I missed certain elements from Maitland’s other books – the variety of first-person narrators from The Owl Killers, the wide cast of eccentric characters from Company of Liars – I think this new tale may be her best yet. I was riveted throughout the book, and upon finishing it my instinct was to jump right back to the beginning and start all over again. I would recommend Maitland’s novels to anyone interested in historical fiction; as well as being compelling and obviously very well-researched; they’re also darkly funny, full of surprises and undeniably entertaining.
The Gallow’s Curse; Maitland, Karen; Penguin UK; £12.99