A year or so ago, I read Karen Maitland’s The Raven’s Head. While it was darker than I am used too, the real issue was the thoroughly unlikeable protagonist! However I was suitably impressed by the writing to want to read more. So I was thankful to have the chance to read another of her dark historical fictions: The Plague Charmer.
In this book, Maitland took me back to 1361 – thirteen years after the Great Pestilence ravaged England – to Porlock Weir, a small fishing village on the bleak Exmoor coast. After drought, an ill-omened black sun and afeared rumblings of the pestilence’s return, this beleaguered community is hit by a terrible storm, that smashes weirs, floods homes and blows in a half-dead woman. This mysterious stranger offers to help the villagers, but for a price no one is willing to pay. Shortly after the deadly sickness arrives and as fear turns to hysteria, the stranger’s cost no longer seems so unthinkable…
Maitland shows the following trials and tribulations of the villagers through the narrations of a varied assortment of characters: Will, the dwarf; Sara, a packhorse man’s wife; Matilda, a militantly devout woman; Janiveer, the woman from the sea; and some of the inhabitants of the nearby manor; who blockade the road, trapping the villagers, to protect themselves. Plus there are many more diverse characters for our narrators to interact with. Such a large cast did make it harder for me to make personal connections, but I did still become fond of Will and Sara, and it was interesting to have a large range of people from the Medieval social spectrum featured.
I also can’t fault Maitland’s eye for detail. She really has thought of every little detail and aspect, so that this tale of suffering, loss and fortitude with touches of the supernatural is brought vividly to life. After finishing the book, I was fascinated to discover in Maitland’s research notes that she took inspiration from many real Medieval places, events and people. So while this was still darker than I would prefer, I found myself absolutely gripped! The characters helped too, as they are well drawn and realistic: there are good, bad and murky in between characters. Plus Will was a great character to lighten the mood.
Overall, I thought The Plague Charmer was a compelling and completely believable dark historical fiction, with clever supernatural twists. I would definitely be up for reading more by this author. Good read.
Thank you to the publishers for providing a copy of this book via NetGalley in exchange for my honest opinion.
Have you read this? Or have you read anything else by Karen Maitland?