Novelist Karen Maitland puts the dark into the Dark Ages. In her first two novels Company of Liars and The Owl Killers she took us into the seamy side of the 1300's. No knights and pageantry for Ms. Maitland. No martyrs or future Popes. No farm boys turned empire builders or daughters of the squire scheming to marry up. Her heroes and heroines are the unwashed, the common folk of the period struggling legally and illegally if necessary to survive and all too susceptible to superstition and the manipulations of those in a position to do them a little bit of good. It's all a little twisty as well as dark and all the more engaging for that. Karen Maitland writes historical fiction that doesn't need royalty to fascinate.
Maitland's new novel, The Gallows Curse has a 13th century setting that has a soul satisfying mystery at its core. The background for the storyline is the six year long battle between England's' King John and Pope Innocent the III. In 1207 the Pope selected a new Archbishop of Canterbury. King John wasn't pleased by the choice so he refused to let the Archbishop enter England and then appropeated some Church lands. The Pope in turn excommunicated John and put all of England under an interdict. Essentially an interdict means that you are not allowed to recieve any Church rites: baptism, marriage, last rites, etc. Ultimately this treatment from the Church was one of the straws that broke the nobilities backs and in 1211 they forced King John to sign the Magna Carta.
Picture if you will a 13th century European country shunned by Rome. At this moment in time the Catholic Church probably had more influence and power over the average European citizen than any monarch. It was certainly more of a daily presence in the lives of the citizenry than any King would be. The absence of the Church created a perfect storm for opportunists willing to use superstition, intimidation and hell fire for their own gain. The Church was far from perfect but sometimes life is easier with the Devil you know.
In The Gallows Curse we get to wallow in 500+ pages of schemers, prophecy, secrets, treachery, history, invention and Gothic melodrama. In the middle of this entertaining mix is Elena a fifteen year old maidservant at Gastmere Manor. At first Elena feels lucky to have been given the position at Gastmere but after gaining the attention of the young lord of the manor maybe Elena's luck isn't so good after all. Soon Elena is pregnant and pursued for a crime she didn't commit. She is helped by a mysterious local woman who sees Elena's troubles as her chance to settle old scores and Raffaele, steward of the manor. Raffaele is an older man consumed by his own crimes. He is convinced that there is nothing he can do to make up for the past. That belief in his own evil brings an edge to his willingness to aid Elena, does he have his own agenda?
Maitland's bag of tricks gets a workout as she plays out Elena's and Raffaele's stories against an England that has been silenced by the Church. This is where historical events butt up against everyday lives. Betrayal, superstition, curses, fear, ignorance and suspicion fester away among the populace in The Gallows Curse. Surrounding the plotline and the tensions in the novel is the filthy, thick with foreboding atmosphere Maitland has layered into the book. Every twist of the tale brings Elena further away from safety and the reader deeper into a brutal, every day could be your last time period.
So far there is no pub date for a U.S. edition of The Gallows Curse. Her other two novels were published over here so this might just me a matter of time. My edition came from the U.K.
P.S. What do you think of the cover? I think it's terrific. A very modern look for a historical fiction book.