The year is 1348 and the first plague victim has reached English shores. Panic erupts around the country and a small band of travellers comes together to outrun the deadly disease, unaware that something far more deadly is – in fact – travelling with them. The ill-assorted company – a scarred trader in holy relics, a conjurer, two musicians, a healer and a deformed storyteller – are all concealing secrets and lies. And at their heart is the strange, cold child – Narigorm – who reads the runes. But as law and order breaks down across the country and the battle for survival becomes ever more fierce, Narigorm mercilessly compels each of her fellow travellers to reveal the truth … and each in turn is driven to a cruel and unnatural death.
This is the second book I’ve read by Karen Maitland – The Owl Killers kept me occupied for about a week over a summer holiday a few years ago – and I was looking forward to another installment of historical intrigue. Company of Liars was every bit as compelling, and, if possible, even more spooky and unsettling.
Our narrator is called Camelot, a seller of relics, trinkets, lotions and potions; I really enjoyed the first person narrative voice, and the way in which we view events. The narration is mostly objective but occasionally you feel there is more to Camelot than meets the eye, some past which is deliberately being avoided. This fits in with the theme of the book, that each member of the company has something to hide. The travellers join together through necessity; I found this very natural where it could have seemed a contrived device. I think this was helped by Camelot’s misgivings at each stage. Also, though, there was a sense of fate at work, that there was an inevitability about the way that things unfolded as if the characters were playthings at the mercy of a higher force. This really was quite creepy at times.
Throughout the novel, Camelot’s unease with the child Narigorm becomes more and more apparent as events become more and more strange. We’re invited to share the mix of superstition and cynicism; can Narigorm’s prophecies really be true? Could it just be coincedence or is some other more primal force at work in the tragedies befalling the characters on their journey? Maitland keeps us guessing right until the final page.
I was really impressed by the historical setting of the book, as I was with The Owl Killers. The names, places, religious and cultural references all seemed spot-on and completely believable. Maitland must have done an extraordinary amount of research to create such flawless backgrounds, not to mention the attitudes of the characters. I loved the idea that, despite the first beginnings of the Renaissance in Europe, England was still a place of magic as much as religious belief where folk law could be as powerful as any physical evidence.
I don’t often read historical fiction but I’ve said before it’s something I’d like to read more; this was definitely a great way in to the genre. I’m very much looking to reading more of Maitland’s novels and immersing myself in the Middle Ages again.