Friday, August 26, 2011

Company of Liars, by Karen Maitland

In my last year of University I took a class in which the prof instructed us to read Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett, to find inspiration for our term papers to write about Medieval society.  Pillars was rife with inspiration and I loved the book so much that even with a full course load I finished it, then eagerly bought Follett’s follow up work World Without End.  (No, this review is not about either of those books, but I strongly recommend you read them as they are amazing).  Now that Pillars has been turned into a mini-series, I would think the prof in question should be looking for a new work of fiction to encourage her students, and I think that can be found in Company of Liars by Karen Maitland.

Like Follett, Maitland does an amazing job in painting her readers a picture of Medieval society in England.  The story begins shortly before the plague breaks out on England’s southern coast, and follows the tale of nine people fleeing north and east in their attempts to out-run it.  The cast of characters includes charlatans, musicians, and a cripple, and each character is properly developed and intriguing.  As the title of the work suggests, each traveler caries with them secrets which, if exposed, threatens their position in their worlds.   

Maitland’s work is a well crafted and highly researched.  Medieval society is innocuously explored and the reader is introduced to religion, culture, consumer goods, and the social system with a deft hand which imparts knowledge without being relentlessly preachy – a sign of a good historical fiction author.  There were minor anachronisms which can’t be forgiven, however, because of the high quality of the research that went into the rest of the work.  The most blatant is the multiple references to chess by members of the lower orders; I’m not an expert on when the game reached England, but it seemed out of place that it was referenced on more than one occasion as if the characters were well-seasoned players.  The other thing that struck me was the casual acceptance of homosexuality; I’m sure some people would have accepted it (much as we do today – without a second thought), but there was quite a lot of acceptance of it in the book, which didn’t sit true with how it was perceived in Medieval society.

As for the plot, there’s not much that I can give away.  Secrets and lies are revealed in increments, but the reader is privy to all stories by the end.  One of the best things I can say about the work is that none of the stories seems implausible.  There is, however, an aspect to the story that did bother me and this was the inclusion of the supernatural.  Again, we see an author who is to lazy (or who feels that her readers want a twist in the third act) to try and explain away her plot without relying on unnatural forces.  The rational mind in me is always shying away from this device, and Maitland leaves just enough unsaid that I can cognitively reframe her plot to get away from the supernatural, but just barely.  This work (as with most works which rely on this device) would have been stronger had the author given it a little less hocus-pocus and a little more plot development.

All in all, this was a good read.  I’m not going to say a great read.  I started off with high expectations as the open chapters are rich with layers and allusions to the ‘liar’s’ theme, but this drops off in favour of plot development.  But, as I said, the historical research (which includes several pages of historical notes at the end of the book) makes up for some of this.  The characters and the plot development are all to be admired, even with the twist in the third act.  If you’re looking for a Follett-like work (in the vein of Pillars and World) than Maitland’s Company of Liars is definitely worth the read.  

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