The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them. Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group’s leader, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller . . . from the strange, silent child called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each has a secret. None is what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all–propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.
Science, Philosophy, Religion, Superstition. All are attempts by humans to understand our world, As a species we fear the unknown, that which we cannot see or understand. We turn to science, philosophy, religion or superstition to provide the answer and where one fails, we will turn to another to fill the void. At different points in history each has held greater sway, though undoubtedly religion and superstition ruled supreme for the greatest period. This book is set during such a period, the Middle Ages or the Dark Ages when the wisdom of the Greeks had been forgotten and the scientific exploration of the Renaissance was yet to come. God is wrathful and vengeful. The Church is all powerful, and engaged in all the practices which would result in the Reformation 200 years later (nepotism, the selling of indulgences etc.). Belief in vampires, werewolves, witches and fairies were widespread and co-existed alongside the Church. Into this world comes the Black Death killing rich and poor alike, leaving destruction in its wake and killing anywhere between 75 and 200 million people across Europe.
For me this was very much a book about the power of religion, superstition and people’s will to survive. A group of people brought together by circumstance, fleeing across England pursued by the Black Death…and something far more sinister. It is interesting to see how people, when faced with something unknown lurking in the shadows, will cling to any explanation however unlikely or illogical, any sliver of hope however faint, and the depths of madness to which humans will descend when faced with something unknown which they cannot fight.
I’ve never read Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but from the little I know about it, group of people travelling together and sharing stories, I was reminded of it with this book….and not just because both are set during the middle ages. Storytelling is an important feature of this plot, with each member slowly sharing their tale…or a version of it. Their tales are largely fabricated (or liars as Narigorm the strange fairy like child obsessed with truth would call them) but within their tales they reveal the truth of how they came to be on the road. The trick for the reader is to recognise these grains of truth.
I was amazed to discover that this was Maitland’s debut novel. All the main characters are well developed, with a degree of depth unusual in a debut novel. The plot is intricately woven, slowly unfurling itself and its well paced. There were no passages I skimmed over because they failed to hold my attention or plot lines which I felt were unnecessary. The only slight off note for me was the ending. Without giving anything away, lets just say it seems to come totally out of left field to provide an almost ostentatious ending clearly seeking shock value. Considering Maitland’s skill and ability to pace and control the plot up to that point, it was surprising that she would decide to include an ending slowly for the purpose of achieving a shock value. At least that was my initial feeling. Upon further reflection I think it depends on how you view this book. Is it historical fiction or is it a thriller? If you consider it historical fiction, which is certainly how it feels for the majority of the time, then the ending is incongruous. If however you consider it a thriller, then perhaps the ending makes more sense. For me however, I still feel the more subtle ending the final chapter indicates until the surprise on the final pages, would have been more fitting.
Overall an excellent, well executed book. In most respects worthy of 5 stars. However because of the ending I would only give it 4.