Book Review: The Plague Charmer

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The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, is a substantial but eminently readable work of historical fiction. Set in a remote fishing village in the heart of Exmoor during the 1361 outbreak of the Great Pestilence, it introduces the reader to characters from all social classes. The high born confidantes of the King guard their secrets whilst seeking to protect and increase their wealth. Those subsisting on the sparse offerings of a challenging lifestyle and landscape seek to survive.

Into this world comes a foreigner, Janiveer, washed up from the sea when a boat capsizes on rocks. She warns of the plague to come and offers to save the village, at a price none are willing to pay.

What follows is an exploration of the beliefs and superstitions of the time. There is Matilda, the wife of a ship’s carpenter who has been raised by nuns and idolises the trappings of the established church. There is Will, a false dwarf accused of theft and banished from the manor life into which he was sold. There are dependents of the overlord, holed up together to escape the contagion; villagers jostling for position as they fight for their lives; a renegade priest who has established a cult following he holds captive by fear.

The story opens with an eclipse of the sun, regarded as a bad omen. The village is struggling due to an unseasonal drought. With most of the residents living their entire lives within the village bounds, educated only in how to survive, old beliefs have merged with the teachings of the church to produce a population fearful of what will befall them if they do not abide by the many habits and customs passed down through the generations. Famine, disease and death are blamed on reprobates, those who will not comply.

When the plague arrives any common goodness or humanity is lost as attempts are made to isolate the disease. Families are torn apart, neighbours blamed. It was not the grief at death that depressed me but the reaction of those who couldn’t see beyond themselves.

I enjoyed the role Janiveer played as she stood her ground while men struggled to dominate her. She used their arrogance and weakness against them. I enjoyed the role of Will, whose life could so easily have left him bitter yet who was amongst the most humane. Lady Pavia showed political expediency, Sara a strength that belied the attitudes of the time to women.

The story captured my attention yet, as it played out, I felt depression at the believable behaviour of so many. This was blinkered small-mindedness taken to extreme. Within the confines of the only world these poeple can have known it may well have been how it was. I wonder how far we have come.

I cannot fault the writing, this is a compelling story. It enlightened but did not entertain.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline. 

Book Review: The Vanishing Witch

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The Vanishing Witch, by Karen Maitland, is a dark tale of treachery and oppression in medieval England. The cast of characters offer well researched glimpses into the unequal lifestyles of the citizens of that time: the wealthy merchant whose comfortable lifestyle is threatened by corruption and revolt; the boatman who cannot escape his life of hunger and squalor however hard he works; the children expected to quietly follow in their parent’s footsteps, learning their trade before they reach their teens; the women who are passed from father to husband, raised to honour and obey however their menfolk choose to behave.

In a time when the shadow of death was very much a part of life superstitions were rampant. Into this mix steps a beautiful and wealthy widow who sets out to bewitch those who will further her cause. Using a ghost as narrator the reader is offered glimpses of the deadly games she plays as she draws families and their members into her web. Utterly ruthless in her quest she destroys any who get in her way.

The story is told effortlessly. Despite being well over six hundred pages long it never dragged. The period detail is impressive, the supernatural elements suitably opaque and spine tingling.

I wanted to be impressed by this book. I enjoy historical fiction, particularly when it involves common folk rather than just the wealthy and powerful. The attention to detail couldn’t be bettered, but the plot development left me cold. Perhaps there were just too many spoilers early on. Having anticipated much of what would happen I was left with few mysteries to solve as the story progressed. I did not find this a satisfying read.

Chapter’s were told from differing points of view but I was unconvinced by their juxtaposition. Having divulged certain actions in previous chapters a character would then appear to be unaware of their own involvement. Relationships would be revealed and then not acknowledged in a character’s thoughts. For example, in a chapter that purports to be written from Catlin’s point of view she would be thinking of those around her in terms of what she knows them to be rather than as whatever role they present to others for her sake.

I did like the denouement. I could empathise with the wealthy widow when she explained why she had acted as she did although I would have preferred to have seen her daughter’s story tied up more neatly. The ghost narrator explained the mother’s but not the daughter’s skills and powers.

The sub-plots and setting of this tale impressed. There were interesting parallels with present day wealth disparities and the arrogance of those who benefit from the labour of the oppressed. It is a shame that I perceived aspects of the main storyline to be unsatisfactorily contrived in too many key reveals.

My copy of this book was provided gratis by the publisher, Headline.