The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland (book review)

‘The Plague Charmer’, although ostensibly a history mystery,’ actually slips quite nicely into the fantasy genre. A novel set in mediaeval times cannot fail to acknowledge that Christianity and saintly worship sits alongside magpie and mystery as part of everyday life. at a time when life could often be brutish and short and a peasant was worse less than a peregrine this clinging to the un-material world was a necessary part of life. There was no welfare state, children frequently died before they became adults and there was no real government neither. The Lord of the Manor ordered your existence and the King of England ordered his.

The main story is told by Sara, who is locked, with her near neighbours, into a house of horror. The village has ordered they be secured as one of them has the plague and they must not taint the rest of the village. She is afraid for her sons when they escape the confines of the house, only to find further trouble from the sect who believe the end of the world is coming.

Meanwhile, the dwarf Will, who’s own privileged life as a court jester to the local lord has been brought to an abrupt end, has his own story to tell. His hand-to-mouth existence in the fringes of the village is due to his ‘otherness’. His mouth set at a young age in a permanent grin reminds the villagers that he is unnatural. At the manor house, until recently his home, there are secrets to be found out if people know where to look. It’s the threat of plague that binds all together and also is tearing the community asunder. The intertwining of these and other lives gives us an insight into the medieval mindset.

The novel is very immediate and the descriptions of the weather forms an integral part of the plot as the emotions are tied into the stormy and fetid atmosphere of the seashore village. The eclipse that starts off the tale with its gloomy oppression sets the tone for the narrative where you can only hope for a little glimmer of a happy ending. It’s a fascinating read and keeps you guessing about everyone’s ultimate fate. Ah fate! Do we believe in fate?

Karen Maitland already has a successful series of these medieval mysteries and it has been interesting to read this and try to imagine the horror of the uncertain existence in these times. Of course, modern parallels can be drawn with the recent Ebola crisis and the response of not only authorities but of communities. We haven’t moved on as much as we like to think from our medieval mindset and novels like this serve to remind us why.

Sue Davies

October 2016

(pub: Headline. 576 page paperback. Price: £ 7.99 (UK). ISBN: 978-1-47223-586-2)

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