Company of Liars

Karen Maitland’s novel A Company of Liars is frequently compared to The Canterbury Tales. I think it’s an unfair comparison and one that almost made me put down the book. I think perhaps the only similarities the two works share are that Maitland’s travelers are also a ragtag group thrown together on a voyage (some of whom tell stories) and that they are set in roughly the same time period.

It is 1348 and England is gripped by the Plague. Nine travelers are thrown together on the road as they are escaping the dreaded disease. Each traveler has a secret and lives in fear that others will discover it. Meanwhile, they are pursued by bad luck, disease, and possibly even authorities as they make their way across England.

This book became an engaging read, but I will admit it took me a while to get into the book. I felt encouraged by some of the positive reviews I read and expected a real surprise ending; however, Maitland is careful to plant clues to enable careful readers to predict each traveler’s secret, and I was able to deduce that of the narrator, possibly preventing some of the surprise the other reviewers mentioned. It could be that I was reading The Hound of the Baskervilles at the same time and was primed for clues, but it seemed fairly easy, for the most part, for a careful reader to guess each traveler’s secret—even that of Narigorm, the creepy child who casts runes to tell the fortunes and seems to hold everyone in her thrall with the exception of the narrator, Camelot, who understands who the child is when the others refuse to see.

I would recommend the book only to readers who have a substantial interest in the Middle Ages; otherwise, the bleakness of the novel might prevent the reader from enjoying it. I didn’t catch any glaring historical errors, and Maitland helpfully provides a Historical Note and Glossary to help readers. I do have a quibble with a mythological element Maitland used, but I don’t want to give the problem away for readers who wish to read the book. If you wish to know, you can select the area that appears between the arrows in the following paragraph, and the text will be revealed.

>>The Morrigan had different guises and forms depending on the literature one reads, but she is associated with death at war, and I didn’t find her association with the deaths of the travelers to be congruent with my understanding of her function in mythology.<<

Aside from this quibble, I enjoyed the book, which became more engaging as I continued to read.

In Progress: Company of Liars

The Black DeathA student of mine loaned me Karen Maitland’s novel Company of Liars, and when a student loans me a novel, I feel an extra compulsion to finish it. I was, however, having some trouble getting into this novel until right about yesterday when I was somewhere between 50 and 100 pages in. Then the characters drew me in, and I had read enough positive reviews of the novel to expect it to end with a bang.

One of the novel’s selling points is its historical accuracy. I have to say I have no trouble feeling as though I am traveling with the company, trying to flee the pestilence right along with them. The sights, smells, and atmosphere of the Middle Ages is perhaps too realistic, but certainly is accurate. Life in the Middle Ages was difficult. I think a lot of books set in the Middle Ages, perhaps even including my own, romanticize it a bit too much.

The Black Plague has been one of my grimmer interests–one I’ve shared with my husband, as a matter of fact. The fear of the Plague is all too palpable in this novel. Nine companions are brought together while fleeing the Plague. Each of the nine travelers in this novel has a secret. I think I have some of the secrets figured out, but nearly halfway into the novel, I know I have a way to go before I unravel the rest. Expect, as always, my review once I finish. Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a good Plague yarn, pick it up and read along with me.

Image obtained from Rancho Buena Vista High School Advanced Placement European History and is used in accordance with Fair Use Guidelines for Educational Purposes.