Karen Maitland, Company of Liars (2008)

The book was pushed into my hands by Mr. S. himself, who encouraged me not to give up. Well I didn’t, although I was tempted more than once. I was squeamish about the pandemic setting (it’s set in 1348 during the Black Plague), but that wasn’t the problem. The thing is, it’s awfully slow. I might have enjoyed it more edited of a few hundreds pages.

I had understood that it was 1. a retelling of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales 2. a mystery. Both are rather misleading. It compares to Chaucer to the extent that a group of different people travel together due to the plague and nothing more. The cover and the blurbs already announce that each of the travellers hide some secrets about themselves from the others, and then they die one by one. I’d supposed that some would die of the plague, but that’s not the case. And the first death actually occurs past the half mark of the book!

The book is actually part historical fiction, part thriller, part supernatural. I found the mix interestingly unusual but it is not my favorite. The question is not really whodunnit but why, and I didn’t care much for each person’s secret. The ending left me frustrated as well.

Still, I enjoyed the research on people’s everyday life and beliefs in the Middle Ages, which is rather unusual. I get that people back then had a lot of supernatural beliefs, but the supernatural part of the plot itself was rather distracting to me. It made me doubt the historical part.

I have a lot of great memories of Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders regarding the 1666 Plague and it should not compare… Any recommendations on good historical novels set in the Middle Ages?

The One with Black Spots and Dark Magic

Karen Maitland,  The Plague Charmer (to be released Oct.  2016)

I am incorrigible. Yes, I love historical fiction, but I should know by now that post-apocalyptic fiction is a high danger zone for me. I raved about Station Eleven but it was the exception; it wasn’t too violent and it kind of glazed over the worst of the mass dying. I should remember that post-apocalyptic fiction not only gives me shivers and nightmares, but that I tend to withhold any critical view and believe everything that is written on the page!

So what on earth was I doing when I chose a Netgalley book centered on the plague epidemic in the Middle Ages? Did I think it would be miraculously a quiet book, soothing enough to lull me to sleep? You bet it isn’t. The Black Death wiped out one out of three people in Europe, after all. If it’s not apocalyptic non-fiction, I don’t know what is!

Historical fiction at its best makes you feel as if you were living in a different century altogether, and boy does it work. The only thing is, I’m not sure I would have enjoyed living in this era. Well, it wouldn’t have been much of a choice because between dying at birth, starving, falling prey to thugs or storms or usual sicknesses or banal accidents, I wouldn’t have survived 5 minutes. But apparently some people did manage to survive and have kids before they died, duh. But only just barely.

The book takes place in a small fishermen’s village in England and in its nearby castle in 1361. After a storm a ship is washed up on the shore, with only one survivor, a strange woman with ominous words and evil intentions. A box is taken from the ship that probably shouldn’t, because soon enough the villagers recognize the deadly signs of pestilence (because the was a previous epidemic a decade earlier or so). Who will die?  Who will be saved, and at what cost?

The book circles between half a dozen different characters who tell what happens in turn. Some are likable, some not so much. One is a castle court dwarf, one is a fisherman’s wife, one is a crazily devout woman, one is a clever lady used to courtly politics, etc. The author doesn’t romanticize or over-simplify the people lives in the Middle Ages, nor does she give them more knowledge and wisdom that what they’d have known or experienced. It’s one of my pet peeves when characters behave in a modern way in a historical novel, and I found none of it in this book. Not to say that everything was completely realistic in the plot, because there are supernatural forces in the book, but these do really well blend in into this atmospheric, superstitious period drama.

Recommended if you are not squeamish and don’t have a deadline the next morning, because you’ll probably sit up late to reach the end!

I received a free copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.