“You've heard tales of beauty and the beast. How a fair maid falls in love with a monster and sees the beauty of his soul beneath the hideous visage. But you've never heard the tale of the handsome man falling for the monstrous woman and finding joy in her love, because it doesn't happen, not even in a story-teller's tale.” Karen Maitland, Company of Liars
This book had been on my to-read pile for... I believe, around twelve months. I started it, stopped it, started it again, stopped again. But this time round, I knew that I would have to start it, and to finish it. It couldn't just sit around on my pile forever.
Company of Liars is a straight up plague-time, mystery/thriller that is so epically Chaucerian I could barely contain myself. It's very Canterbury Tales(ish) in that it features a party of travellers who have been brought together by fate, each member has a devastating secret and each one is willing to lie to keep their secrets hidden (apart from one). The group is made up of an accused paedophile, a healer, a magician, two court players, a freaky child and a newly wed Scandinavian looking couple, and the leader and narrator of the company, Camelot, who sells relics. Together they attempt to outrun the pestilence (the black plague) that is ravishing Europe, and at the same time keep their secrets close to the chest.
David Thorpe is the narrator for this book and he actually does a fantastic job; I was really impressed. His regional accents are wonderful as are his international accents. They're caricature accents, but they're what is needed to distinguish nicely between all the characters. The book is a long one, but he doesn't lose his way in his narration and his pace is good. The production is exceptional if course, and even listening through my phone's speaker the quality of the recording is very good indeed.
I found the book a little difficult to get in to at first, and felt a little like I just had to persevere for the first few chapters. After the first couple of chapters though I was totally immersed and would find it so very hard not to put it on during my break times at work. Karen Maitland is an expert prose writer and I was greatly impressed the way in which she commanded both the story and its characters.
Maitland has a scarily Stephen King-like understanding of the psychology of her characters, and obviously researched the 14th Century to bits. Superstitions, paranoia and outright nastiness is a recurring theme as the pestilence spreads and the group travel up through England. This travelling gives a brilliant insight in to the many different villages, their views, customs and their own particular brand of superstition and religious practices. Maitland does an excellent job of this. It was a SERIOUS change from the majority of historical novels I come across that always have a bunch of aristocrats, rich people or monarchs at the helm. It was a story about the outcasts of 14 century England and not only how they made money, travelled and lived but also how they tried to survive during the spread of the Black Death.
What I found exceptional in her writing was the way she explored the Black Death. It was as much a part of the story as the characters were, without it being cliched or boring. The book read almost like an apocalyptic tale;the group banded together by necessity, driven on by hope, only to be repetitively let down as more and more villages fall to the plague.
There is a tiny-lickle bit of magic scattered throughout the novel but it is not such a major feature in the book to call it a straight fantasy, and as the magic is never really one-hundred percent confirmed (I'm not sure whether the narrator could be wholly trusted, as they are part of the company of liars after all) I guess I can say that it has moments of the supernatural?
There were parts of the book that were chilling. Maitland's ability to creep me out was quite shocking. I'm not one to check around corners after a book, or to turn on the lights, or get chills, but I did, and she did this without me even realising until I was freaked out!
So you may be wondering why I've not rated the book five stars, and I promise, the explanation will be following very shortly.
The secrets that all the characters possess are secrets that, in the 14 century, would have you killed... and not in a nice way either, and so as a reader I greatly enjoyed trying to guess or unearth from the clues what their secret was. There was one twist, right at the end, one secret, that I just did not see coming. In fact, I spent most of the morning getting ready for work completely concentrated on what I had missed and if there had been any clues at all? The book finishes on a bit of a cliffhanger, and the conclusion all kind of seemed out of the blue for me.
The only way I can truly explain how I felt about the ending is by using a gif. Yes, a visual representation is the only absolute way I can highlight just how I looked this morning when I reached the end...
So I totally loved the book, I was not impressed with the ending. I can appreciate that Maitland had done so brilliantly to get us to the edge of our seats but it just didn't deliver after that. Books can do that sometimes, but I definitely recommend the novel because truly, the ride is worth the read!