The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

The Blurb On The Back:

“Something was approaching, something evil – I could feel it.  As if in some distant land the devil had just unfurled his wings and was even now flying over the sea towards us, his shadow reaching out before him.”

13.61 Porlock Weir, Exmoor. Thirteen years after the Great Pestilence, plague strikes England for the second time. Sara, a packhorse man’s wife, remembers the horror all too well and fears for safety of her children.

Only a dark-haired stranger offers help, but at a price that no one will pay.

Fear gives way to hysteria in the village and, when the sickness spreads to her family, Sara finds herself locked away by neighbours she has trusted for years. And, as her husband – and then others – begin to die, the cost no longer seems so unthinkable.

The price that I ask, from one willing to pay… A human life.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s May 1361.  Will is a dwarf living in the isolated fishing village of Porlock Weir who used to work as a jester for Sir Nigel Loring, the absentee lord of nearby Porlock Manor until he was thrown out for stealing and an unspecified crime involving Sir Nigel’s daughter, Lady Christina who recently married Sir Randel.  Now he survives by collecting fish from the weirs and stealing piglets from Matilda, an unpleasant but religiously devout woman who’s dedicated herself to looking after the local church and its priest, Father Cuthbert.

Sara is married to fisherman, Elis, and mother to two young boys, Luke and Hob.  One night she spots a ship floundering off the cliffs and urges the fisherman to pull out a woman from the sea who against the odds is still alive.  The woman’s name is Janiveer and she warns the village that the Great Pestilence is on the move again across the country.  But she’s willing to save their village in exchange for the life of one of their own …

Karen Maitland’s latest historical novel is another well researched story set amid the Black Death that incorporates elements of superstition, legend and magical realism but it reminded me a lot of THE COMPANY OF LIARS and the wide cast of characters made it difficult to empathise with any one character’s plight so that ultimately I found it difficult to engage with it enough to care about the story.  I found Will to be the most sympathetic character – his dwarfism deliberately manufactured to condemn him to a life of being seen as unhuman for the merriment of the rich and titled – and wanted more of his story with Christina (who is underdeveloped) to understand a little more of what brought them together.  Matilda is a cunning, vicious shrew and for me a more interesting antagonist than Janiveer (who didn’t really come alive for me – mainly because her true objective doesn’t become clear until about half way through the story) while Sara is a bit of a stock character – worried about her family and trying to do what’s best.  The religious cult storyline was predictable and ultimately I think I’d just seen all this before in Maitland’s other work so while I enjoyed the sense of period and the way she mixes in the fantastic my ability to engage with it was hampered by the déjà vu.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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