#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

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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 The Women of the Castle by Jessica Shattuck

The Women of the CastleAbout the Book

Bavaria, Germany. June 1945. The Third Reich has crumbled. The Russians are coming.

Amid the ashes of Nazi Germany’s defeat, Marianne von Lingenfels returns to the once-grand castle of her husband’s ancestors, an imposing stone fortress now fallen into ruin following years of war. The widow of a resister murdered in the failed 20th July 1944 plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, Marianne plans to uphold the promise she made to her husband’s brave conspirators: to find and protect their wives, her fellow resistance widows.

Marianne assembles a makeshift family from the ruins of her husband’s resistance movement, rescuing her dearest friend’s widow, Benita, from sex slavery to the Russian army, and Ania from a work camp for political prisoners. She is certain their shared past will bind them together.

But as Benita begins a clandestine relationship and Ania struggles to conceal her role in the Nazi regime, Marianne learns that her clear-cut, highly principled world view is infinitely more complicated now, filled with secrets and dark passions that threaten to tear them apart.

All three women must grapple with the realities they now face, and the consequences of decisions each made in the darkest of times…

Format: Hardback (368 pages)     Publisher: Zaffre
Publication date: 18th May 2017 Genre: Historical Fiction

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20-books-of-summerMy Review

The Women of the Castle is the third book from my list for the 20 Books of Summer 2022 reading challenge. Yes I know, we’re already over half way through August. Like all the other books on my list, it’s been in my TBR pile for way too long.

Firstly the things I liked about the book. I thought the way the author uses the prologue to contrast the glamorous atmosphere within the castle with events elsewhere in Germany was very powerful. ‘But outside, beyond the walls, terrible things were happening.’ Even more so once we realise the party is taking place on what will come to be known as Kristallnacht. I also liked the fact the book focuses on Germans who were opposed to the Nazi regime, including those such as Marianne’s husband who made the difficult choice to take direct action to oppose Hitler. I found the stories of Ania and Benita especially powerful (even if I never quite worked out how Ania ended up on Marianne’s list of the wives of resisters).

As the book progressed I didn’t mind the changes in point of view from one woman to another but the frequent moving back and forth in time left me frustrated and often confused.  At one point the book jumps back to 1923 and a rather unnecessary (to my mind) final part sees us in 1991. Often there are brief references to quite significant events in the past but it is many chapters before we learn the full details of them.  At times, I felt the book glossed over some events while dealing with others in painstaking detail.

Marianne is the dominant character in the book, or perhaps domineering would be more appropriate. So many of the events in the lives of the other two women are influenced by the decisions Marianne makes. On a number of occasions they are wrong, even fateful decisions. As Benita observes at one point, ‘It was so much like Marianne to act first and then think.’ I had to agree with Ania’s first impression of Marianne as a woman ‘accustomed to giving orders.’ Although I could admire Marianne’s determination to fulfil the promise made to her husband to be ‘the commander of wives and children’ and rescue the families of his co-conspirators, I found her rather contradictory. For example, she is effortlessly multi-lingual but can’t acquite basic cookery skills.

Focussing on the positives once again, I felt the book was particularly successful in demonstrating how difficult it can be to lay to rest the events of the past, to heal the divisions caused by war, and to repair, both physically and mentally, the damage that has been done. Benita exemplifies this well. ‘History was horrible, a long, sloppy tail of grief. It swished destructively behind the present, toppling everyone’s own personal understanding of the past.’

In the Acknowledgments, Jessica Shattuck reveals that it took her seven years to write this book, much of it inspired by her own family history. The depth of historical detail in the book is evidence of her painstaking research. However, although I found much to admire about The Women in the Castle, the back and forth structure of the book didn’t quite work for me.

I received a review copy courtesy of Zaffre.

In three words: Powerful, detailed, expansive

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Jessica ShattuckAbout the Author

Jessica Shattuck is the award-winning author of The Hazards of Good Breeding, a New York Times Notable Book and finalist for the PEN/Winship Award, and of Perfect Life. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The New Yorker, Glamour, Mother Jones, Wired, and The Believer, among others. A graduate of Harvard University, she received her MFA from Columbia University. Shattuck now lives with her husband and three children in Brookline, MA.

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