THE OWL KILLERS by Karen Maitland

22 07 2013

I don’t often write a negative review here – or anywhere. Two reasons. First, a witer – I forget who – was it Joe Orton? – once said, when asked how he felt about critics, “Writers feel about critics what trees feel about dogs.”  (But not just writers surel? Everyone from priests to prostitutes, barmaids to barristers, feels thay way about their critics.)

Secondly, because I don’t read books I don’t like – I stop after the first few pages and never buy a second book by that author – so there are authors I like and read and there are authors I have made up my mind I don’t like and don’t read; an author new to me has a few pages at most to convince me.

The exception? When an author I like writes a bad book. As in this case.


Karen maitland’s Company of Liars is superb. (You can find my review of it here.) It is written in the First Person, the narrator throughout the book being an old dealer in pseudo-sacred relics, a fascinating man whose intelligence and sensitivity are evident from the very first in his comments on his own trade and the world around him and in his dealings with the equally fascinating twelve-year-old rune-reader, Naringorm. He, the sentimental cynic, sells Hope, whereas she sells Truth.  And so it goes on right up till the last page of the book. Not a character there that you don’t identify with, or would dream of calling stupid.

The Owl Killers, on the other hand … I have just given up on page 357, most of which was purgatory.

The changes of viewpoint confuse – there is a different narrator for each chapter – but I could have coped with that if any of the narrators or what thay had to say was even remotely interesting. But no, they are uniformly stupid, uniformly depressing and uniformly boring. There was not one of them I could begin to identify with or sympathise with. Only two minor characters, an ancient witch and her mute granddaughter, show any sign of this author’s flair for character-creation which was so apparent in Company of Liars. And they get no chapters of their own, so we see them only through the blind eyes of one of the narrators!

The fourteenth century could be appalling – and during the plague years, when Company of Liars is set, it was about as bad as life has ever been on this earth. However, people survived, because many of them were intelligent, many of them were brave.  In 1321, when The Owl Killers is set, there was no plague. The characters faced no real external problem. In this book, they simply create problem after problem for each other.

Life is short. In future there is no way I shall read more than three hundred pages of stuff like this simply because it was written by someone who once wrote a book I loved.




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