Tag Archives: karen maitland

The Gallow’s Curse by Karen Maitland

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

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Now I am a great fan of historical fiction but have been a bit averse to the genre because most tell the stories of kings, princesses, and prostitutes with very campy romantic plots that have been recycled and overused to the point of it being absolutely unbearable to those who are looking for a bit more variety in their historical fictions.

Well with Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars, I’ve at last found a book that I simply cannot recommend highly enough.

This novel is completely driven by enigmatic and likable characters (enough with the prostitute with the heart of gold bit!). Needless to say, nobody gets embroiled in a passionate and forbidden love affair, nor are there prostitutes to be delivered into the arms of merry monarchs after a life of misery and suffering. Instead, readers are transported to 14th century England to the time of the Black Plague as nine desperate strangers attempt to escape death as it inexorably surrounds them. We follow this group of strangers across their travels throughout countrysides and villages as the readers truly get a sense of the time and period as lived by people gripped by the plague (Ain’t that refreshing? A historical period not described through the eyes of a princess or prostitute but just ordinary, simple folk). Truly, what made this book a true gem are the characters. We have nine strangers with distinct and believable personas (yes there is a young girl who can seemingly predict the future but this trait only adds to the unexpected ‘creepy’ factor in this novel as she is not your average ‘helpless, young, blonde peasant’) and the mix of the bunch as the plot twists and turns is what makes this a real page-turner.

Additionally, it was hard to say where the story was gonna go. All we are given at the beginning is that this rag-tag group is trying to escape the plague…. and as you read on you genuinely do start to care about each character (even the horrid, nasty one(s)). As one gets absorbed with the struggles that the group of travellers face, readers also become familiar with each character bit by bit. A process that I truly relished and enjoyed as Maitland writes ever so vividly but without exaggeration. The dialogue between characters and description of settings are very readable- Maitland is very straight-forward with her words without feeling the need to romanticize every paragraph.

However you do have to ask yourself why you would want to read a book set in this time period? Is it to learn more about the plague? Or is it to get absorbed in a wonderful fictional story contained in such a setting. Some reviewers did not like this book because of a historical factual slip or two but really it is the characters and their story within the backdrop of the plague that makes this book a winner. Who cares if one little event mentioned in passing by the author didn’t actually happen when the author said it did? It had zero consequences on the plot and lives of the characters. There are more exciting and unsettling things going on with the story to be bothered by an inconsequential slip.

However a word of caution: As one settles into the story, the reader must not forget what this book is called: COMPANY OF LIARS…. yes, and when a story is this good with characters so well written- I almost forgot that there is plenty of deception going on, but what about and why? For the most part we have the leader of the group doing most of the narration- a very likable central figure… and as he tells the story and others in the group tell theirs as well, it is a little bit unnerving and quite the psychological delight to try and guess what the lies being told are and for what purpose? As soon as you decide which characters you like and which you don’t…. and the creepy little girl starts to give hints as to what may be going on…. and a single sentence gives you a hint that a character you adore may not be what he seems…. it’s this VERY SUBTLE and yet ensnaring mind-game that makes this book a must-read and a page-turner in every sense of the word.

Company of Liars; Maitland, Karen; Penguin UK; £7.99