COMPANY OF LIARS by Karen Maitland (Review)

England, 1348

A small group of people, thrown together by chance (or was it chance – is there such a thing as chance when the runes seem to foretell all that happens?), make their way north in an attempt to outrun the plague, the Great Mortality, known later as The Black Death, which arrived on the south coast of England in the summer of 1348 after having cut a swathe of death from East to West around the globe.

A group of people then, all of them liars, starting with the narrator, a trader in holy relics, who justifies his unholy trade by claiming to deal in hope. “I sell hope, and that’s the most precious treasure of them all.” But there is a greater lie in his life than this. As there is in the life of the conjuror Zophiel, a nasty bastard if ever there was one. And the story-teller who, like a character in one of his tales, sports one arm and one swan’s wing.

And then there is a young couple, deeply in love and – like the parents of Jesus – with nowhere to stay though she is heavily pregnant; but they too are telling a great lie. As are the Italian musician and his gay apprentice, and the midwife/healer who joins the group for a while and cares for them all.

But among them is one who never lies (“I can’t lie; if you lie you lose the gift. Morrigan destroys liars.”), a child, a girl of twelve or so, who reads the runes and sees things as they are, not as one might wish they were or hope they will be.

Which one do you imagine will cause all the trouble, bring about the death of most of the rest of the group?

A brilliantly written story by someone who has more feel for the medieval world than almost any other writer we have reviewed on this site (this review was written for Medieval Mysteries) – a lot of writers! And as motley a collection of characters as you will find anywhere, in what is arguably the most nightmarish setting available to an historical novelist.

Have you read Anya Seton’s Katherine? You remember when the plague comes to the castle where she is staying? Of course you do. It is impossible to forget it. Well, this book tells you in even more graphic detail what was going on outside the castles, in the towns and in the countryside, as Death stalked the land and people fled before him.

If you are into fiction set in an authentically medieval world, you won’t want to miss this one.