#BookReview The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

ThePlagueCharmerAbout the Book

1361. An unlucky thirteen years after the Black Death, plague returns to England.

When the sickness spreads from city to village, who stands to lose the most? And who will seize this moment for their own dark ends?

The dwarf who talks in riddles?
The mother who fears for her children?
The wild woman from the sea?
Or two lost boys, far away from home?

Pestilence is in the air. But something much darker lurks in the depths.

Format: Paperback (562 pages)  Publisher: Headline
Publication date: 6th April 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

When you pick up a historical novel by Karen Maitland you can confidently expect a great sense of atmosphere, fascinating historical detail, an intriguing array of characters and a touch of the supernatural or mystical. The Plague Charmer delivers on all those counts.

The Plague Charmer was written way before the pandemic but having lived through it we can now perhaps understand a little better the fear and uncertainty the inhabitants of Porlock Weir experience when ‘The Great Pestilence’ returns. As the plague wreaks havoc in the village, one of the characters remarks, ‘I don’t reckon we’ll ever see weddings and happiness again after this. Feels like the whole world is dying’. When you add to the return of the plague – which on this occasion is attacking primarily the young and fit, and more men than women – a prolonged drought, ferocious storms and a total eclipse it’s not surprising that the villagers become fearful and a sense of hysteria spreads. And you can understand how readily they might believe someone who says they know a way to save them and rid them of the plague – for a price. Or that they might believe those who proclaim the plague is God’s way of ridding the world of sinners sparing only the ‘chosen’ ones. The latter forms a rather chilling storyline but one, as the Historical Note explains, that is based on historical fact. I’m sure I’m not alone in thinking of the conspiracy theories that circulate on social media, preying on people’s fears and of how easy it is, in times of uncertainty, for individuals to manipulate others whether fuelled by religious zeal or a lust for power.

One of my favourite characters was Will, a dwarf or, to be more precise, a ‘fake’ dwarf. Who knew there was such a thing? The details of how that would have come about are actually quite shocking but his presence in the story is a neat way for the author to explore the theme of difference. He also has a wicked sense of humour – I loved the nickname ‘The Holy Hag’ he gives to one of the women in the village – and is adept at riddles. So is the author, it seems, as riddles or medieval proverbs appear at the start of each chapter. And, yes, the answers are at the back.

Like a lot of the author’s novels, The Plague Charmer is a fairly chunky book but it weaves together so many intriguing storylines and is populated with so many interesting characters that it never feels like a slog, at least it didn’t to me. Although I’ve read a couple of Karen Maitland’s historical novels I haven’t read them all and that’s certainly something I plan to correct.

In three words: Atmospheric, mysterious, immersive

Try something similar: The Last Hours by Minette Walters

K J Maitland Karen MaitlandAbout the Author

Karen Maitland travelled and worked in many parts of the United Kingdom before settling for several years in the beautiful medieval city of Lincoln, an inspiration for her writing. She is the author of over twenty books. She now leads a life of rural bliss in Devon. Karen also writes as K J Maitland. (Photo: Goodreads author page)

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#BookReview Essex Dogs by Dan Jones

Essex DogsAbout the Book

July 1346. The Hundred Years’ War has begun, and King Edward and his lords are on the march through France. But this war belongs to the men on the ground.

Swept up in the bloody chaos, a tight-knit company from Essex must stay alive long enough to see their home again. With sword, axe and longbow, the Essex Dogs will fight, from the landing beaches of Normandy to the bloodsoaked field of Crecy.

There’s Pismire, small enough to infiltrate enemy camps. Scotsman, strong enough to tear down a wall. Millstone, a stonemason who’ll do anything to protect his men. Father, a priest turned devilish by the horrors of war. Romford, a talented young archer on the run from his past. And Loveday FitzTalbot, their battle-scarred captain, who just wants to get his boys home safe.

Some men fight for glory. Others fight for coin. The Essex Dogs? They fight for each other.

Format: Hardback (464 pages)                Publisher: Head of Zeus
Publication date: 15th September 2022 Genre: Historical Fiction

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My Review

Essex Dogs is the first book in a new trilogy set during the Hundred Years’ War. It’s the author’s first foray into fiction (unless you count his novella The Tale of the Tailor and the Three Dead Kings) but on the evidence of Essex Dogs it’s clear he’s as adept at fiction as he is at non-fiction.

The events at the outset of the Hundred Years’ War are thrillingly brought to life through the escapades of the fictional Essex Dogs, a group of men of different ages, from different parts of what is today Great Britain and who speak different languages even. What unites them is a talent for fighting – whether with axe, sword or bow – a desire to make their fortunes and the bonds of comradeship. ‘We are who we are. We do what we do. We look after each other.’

This foul-mouthed, dishevelled brotherhood is ‘led’ by Loveday FitzTalbot from whose point of view we witness most of the action.  There are passing references and little nuggets of information about the backgrounds of the Essex Dogs, including mention of their previous leader, the enigmatic Captain.  (It would be great to learn more of their back stories – a prequel in the making perhaps?) Besides Loveday, the person we learn most about is Romford, a troubled young man for whom the Essex Dogs have become a sort of family. Other notable characters are Father, a rather demented priest, and Scotsman, a giant of a man whose talent for fighting is second only to his highly imaginative and extremely crude cursing. I also loved the mystical element introduced by way of the mysterious woman from Valognes.

Although the Essex Dogs are entirely the product of the author’s imagination, real historical figures play a part as well. Here I think the author really has some fun giving us a whiny Edward, The Black Prince and –  my favourite – an Earl of Northampton for whom the descriptions ‘colourful’ and ‘plain-speaking’ don’t do justice. He certainly gives Scotsman a run for his money when it comes to cursing with just about every utterance being peppered with the f-word and c-word. He’s the epitome of calling a spade a spade and not afraid to give his views on the foolishness of a proposed tactic. I would love to give you some examples of his imaginative cursing but most of them – actually all of them – are far too rude to repeat.

The book opens with a dramatic and bloody beach landing that could have come straight out of Saving Private Ryan or The Longest Day.  Then there’s a long and arduous march through France in an effort to meet with a constantly retreating French army, stopping only for a spot of pillaging along the way. As they trudge through wind and rain, I was reminded of the scenes in Kenneth Branagh’s film of Henry V in which he leads his bedraggled army. Towards the end of the book the action really picks up with some terrific battle scenes, culminating with the Battle of Crécy.  There is a real sense of the confusion of battle, the sheer brutality of hand-to-hand combat and of course the triumph of English longbows over French crossbows.

I thought Essex Dogs was a brilliant start to what promises to be a fantastic trilogy. And if you love a last minute revelation or an intriguing epilogue, then look no further.

I received a digital review copy courtesy of Head of Zeus via NetGalley.

In three words: Authentic, vivid, action-packed

Try something similar: The Blooding by David Gilman

Dan JonesAbout the Author

Dan Jones is the Sunday Times and New York Times bestselling author of ten non-fiction books, including The Templars, The Colour of Time and Powers and Thrones. He is a renowned writer, broadcaster and journalist, and has for many years wanted to write authentic but action-packed historical fiction. He lives near London with his family.

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