Saturday, April 3, 2010

Company of Liars - Karen Maitland

Again it doesn't look like I will manage a second review this week. I'm about halfway through Diamond Dogs, Turquoise Days by Alastair Reynolds at the moment. I may even finish tonight but even if I do, I won't have time to write the review until Monday. So I dug up an older review again. I intend to read The Owl Killers, mentioned in this review sometime in April. Mind you, the two books are not a series of any kind. I edited this version slightly to weed out the most annoying errors in the original.

It’s been a while since I read any historical fiction. I don’t usually read a lot of it but once in a while the mood grabs me as it did last week. So I picked up a copy of Company of Liars: A Novel of the Plague, a historical mystery by Karen Maitland. As the title suggests it is set during the time of the Great Plague that swept across Europe between 1347 and 1351. I was a bit hesitant to pick it up, there are scores of books on this topic and I have read a number of them already. Despite the subtitle the plague is not one of the main ingredients of the book. Most of it is focussed on the group dynamic in the company. The book has been compared to The Canterbury Tales. Personally it reminded me more of And Then There Were None.

On Midsummer’s day 1348 in a town in the south of England we meet the narrator of the story. He is a Camelot, a man in the business of selling news and articles of dubious origin. Our Camelot mostly sells amulets and relics. He sees it as selling hope himself but nothing of what he sells is genuine of course. Rumours of the plague that has swept across Europe have reached England. Now it seems this punishment of God is headed in their direction too. After witnessing one of the first victims fall to the plague he decides it is time to be on the road again.

He is not the only one, through various meetings and coincidences a company forms around the Camelot. A musician and his apprentice, a conjurer, a midwife, a story-teller, a young couple on the run expecting their first child and a mysterious, rune-casting girl join him. Steadily making their way north and east the company tries to outrun the plague until winter’s chill will end it. Each of the company carries their own secrets and none seem willing to share. However, shared hardships form bonds in this unlikely company and bit by bit the stories of the various characters become clear. So it goes until the company reaches a number of nine and the rune-casting girl pronounces the company complete. Around Christmas the young couple’s child is born and adds tenth member to the company. This is when the deaths start.

As I mentioned in the introduction the plague sets the stage but other than that it is not that important in the books. The author does not feel the need to go into great detail on the horror of the plague. She mentions the effects of course, we get to see bits and pieces as the company travels, but mostly they try to avoid it, and they are reasonably successful in that. The company's main concern is how to survive on their meagre resources in a country where crops are failing and people are not selling what little they do have. Tensions within the company flare often but striking out on their own may be death sentence to any who try.

In the mean time the reader is mostly occupied with trying to puzzle out who is hiding what. As the title suggests all the company's members are liars. They are hiding things from the others and from themselves sometimes. Most of them have done things they are not proud of in the past. One by one their secrets are revealed, usually with painful consequences. It could have made an interesting puzzle but the author makes sure to drop hints well in advance of revealing the secrets. Not all of them are equally subtle so in some cases the reader gets plenty of warning.

The author adds quite a bit of historical detail to the story. Not in the way of who rules what or which major historical development is taking places, but things you’d come across in the every day life of the characters. Everything from customs in the villages they pass though to the religious details that governed society. One thing that struck me in particular are the descriptions of the road fare the company lives on. Medieval cuisine for ordinary people was not known for it’s finesse. A lot of it consists of sticking everything they can gather or kill into a pot and boiling it until they are reasonably sure it is dead. Quite palatable when you are on the brink of starvation no doubt. These details of medieval cooking are used very effectively by the author. The Camelot’s way of recounting it as nothing out of the ordinary makes the reader feel immersed in medieval times.

My feelings on Company of Liars are mixed. I thought the historical component of the book was very well done. The focus of the lives of characters you won’t find in the history books works very well for me. The mystery part of the book falls flat though, especially near the end. I don’t want to give away the ending of the book in this review but the author seems to have no such inhibition. For me the shape of the story was quite clear well before reaching the climax of the book. It didn’t help that the end is quite bitter either. It does leave us with the interesting question of how much of the story is true. The narrator after all, is a liar. So not a complete success but the writing is good, the book intriguing, I would not be at all surprised if Maitland goes on to write some very good historical mysteries. Despite it’s flaws I will most likely be temped to pick up her next book The Owl Killers, scheduled for US release in September 2009.

Book Details
Title: Company of Liars
Author: Karen Maitland
Publisher: Penguin
Pages: 559
Year: 2009
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 978-0-141-03833-9
First published: 2008

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