Wednesday, February 2, 2011

The Owl Killers

Happy Ground Hog Day Flower!

How do you feel about 6 more weeks of winter? I'm OK with it as long as it's only 6 more weeks. What a winter we've had so far. Good weather for reading but not for anything else.

Have you read Karen Maitland? She won me over with her novel Company of Liars. It is a kind of seamy underside of Canterbury Tales while it catches the Plague. In The Owl Killers Maitland goes back a little further in time to 1321. The Black Plague was about twenty years away but the Little Ice Age had already begun so... Good Times.

If I were alive in 1321 first of all at my age I'd be practically immortal but beyond that odds are that I would be: uneducated, widowed, have had several children two of which might have made it to adulthood, poor, malnourished and have a myriad of health problems. I would not be the spirited daughter of a great house used to better family connections through marriage, a preternaturally insightful healer or midwife or the secretly scholarly daughter of an academic who knows how to turn straw into gold. In short I'd be a character in a Karen Maitland novel and not one novel from any other writer of historical fiction covering the Middle Ages that I can think of. That is a big part of the reason that I am drawn to Maitland's books, her everyman approach. I do like a novel about all those daughters but I find Maitland's just regular folks take on history fascinating.

Set near Norfolk in the tiny village of Ulewic, The Owl Killers is an intensely atmospheric, well written novel with a very interesting look at Paganism verses Christianity. The village is not so secretly ruled by the local Lord of the Manor and the Owl Masters. The Masters are a hold over from pagan/tribal times. It is society of men who behind their masks and cloaks govern through terror and torture. The presence of the Church in Ulewic has done nothing to erode the power of the Owl Masters. The villagers themselves live a desperate hand to mouth existence the poverty of which is exacerbated by the Masters.

New to Ulewic is a beguinage. A beguinage is a combination group home, safe house made up of Christian lay women who work together to support each other but this is not a Church sanctioned organization. Despite a few good turns these women are able to do for the villagers this new community is looked at with distrust and suspicion. The beguinage is made up of women from all walks of life from the Good Novel Character Department: a cook, a healer/midwife, a former prostitute, a potential saint, peasants, etc. A group diverse enough to establish a variety of life experiences, opinions and backstories.

The malevolent Owl Masters in particular are scornful of the beguinage. Their ill will goes beyond threats after talk of witchcraft at the beguinage begin. How could they not be witches when their livestock and crops are spared just as those of the village fail. Things escalate when the daughter of the Lord and a local pregnant girl join the beguinage and for unknown reasons the village priest suddenly needs to cover his tracks.

As in  Company of Liars, Maitland divides her story between several characters in The Owl Killers. These alternating narrators and their unique perspectives and motives add a larger view of life and authenticity to the story. At times the storylines get a little slack and the plot wanders a bit but Maitland's attention to detail and setting are excellent. She makes 1321 a picturesque horror show of poverty, famine, ignorance and calamity. A great place to visit but you wouldn't want to live there--at least until she writes another novel.

Ta-Da! Maitland has another novel coming out!

The Gallow's Curse. It's due on in the U.K. in March. No release date for the U.S. yet.

P.S. As with Maitland's Company of Liars, I much prefer the U.K. cover to the U.S. cover. The U.S. cover is muddled and a mash of distracting elements. The U.K. cover is beautiful--great type and a gorgeous design.

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