#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 If We Were Villains by M. L. Rio

IfWeWereVillainsAbout the Book

Oliver Marks has just served ten years for a murder he may or may not have committed. On the day of his release, he is greeted by the detective who put him in prison. Detective Colborne is retiring, and he wants to know what really happened a decade before.

As a young actor at an elite conservatory, Oliver noticed that his talented classmates seem to play the same characters onstage and off – villain, hero, temptress – though he was always a supporting role. But when the teachers change the casting, a good-natured rivalry turns ugly, and the plays spill dangerously over into real life.

When tragedy strikes, one of the seven friends is found dead. The rest face their greatest acting challenge yet: convincing the police, and themselves, that they are blameless…

Format: Paperback (432 pages)    Publisher: Titan Books
Publication date: 13th June 2017 Genre: Crime

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My Review

The author is a devotee of Shakespeare and this certainly comes across in the book. For instance its title is a quote from King Lear. Not only do the fourth year drama students at Dellecher Classical Conservatory study and perform only the works of Shakespeare but the book is peppered with references to and quotations from the Bard’s plays. Indeed the students frequently converse in Shakespeare-like quotations. The book’s structure also mimics a theatrical format being divided into acts and scenes, each act starting with a prologue.

All the characters have flaws although Richard – ‘pure power, six foot three and carved from concrete’ – seems set up from the beginning as the villain of the piece.  There’s an interesting scene in which the students are forced by one of the course tutors to declare their strengths and weaknesses with unflinching honesty.

As the book progresses, the bonds of friendship become increasingly tested and are eventually broken altogether on one momentous night that is no A Midsummer Night’s Dream. The storyline incorporates all the elements of a Shakespearean tragedy: passion, ambition, duplicity, betrayal, revenge, even madness. ‘Actors are by nature volatile – alchemic creatures composed of incendiary elements, emotion and ego and envy. Heat them up, stir them together, and sometimes you get gold. Sometimes disaster.’ The modern world intrudes occasionally in the form of drink and drug fuelled parties that last well into the early hours.

Although I enjoyed If We Were Villains, by Act V I was beginning to experience a bit of Shakespeare overload which may have contributed to the sense that the book lacked pace. The obvious comparison is with Donna Tartt’s The Secret History but the enclosed and rather claustrophobic nature of Dellecher Classical Conservatory – described at one point as ‘less academic institution than cult’ – also reminded me a little of Caldonbrae Hall, the boarding school in Madam by Phoebe Wynne.

In three words: Atmospheric, intricate, dramatic

Try something similar: New Boy by Tracy Chevalier


M L RioAbout the Author

M. L. Rio was born in Miami and has just competed her MA in Shakespeare Studies at King’s College London. In 2016 she won a contest to stay in Hamlet’s Castle at Elsinore for the 400th anniversary of Shakespeare’s death, where she was the first person to sleep in the castle in over 100 years. If We Were Villains is her debut novel.

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