The Drowned City by KJ Maitland

I had already been drawn to The Drowned City, the first in a new series of historical mysteries set in the 17th century, before it dawned on me that KJ Maitland was Karen Maitland, an author whose books I’ve enjoyed in the past. All the more reason to want to read it, then!

In January 1606, exactly a year after the execution of the conspirators who tried to blow up Parliament in the failed Gunpowder Plot, a towering wave sweeps up the Bristol Channel, leaving a scene of devastation. Whole families are drowned, buildings are swept away and farmland is destroyed. As the survivors try to come to terms with what has happened, rumours begin to arise. Some say the wave was summoned by witches, others that it was God’s way of taking revenge for the executions. The King’s most trusted adviser, Charles FitzAlan, fears that it’s all part of another Catholic conspiracy and decides to send someone to Bristol to investigate. Luckily, he knows just the man for the job…

That man is Daniel Pursglove, currently languishing in Newgate Prison awaiting what seems to be certain death. Daniel’s particular background and skills have brought him to FitzAlan’s attention and when he is offered his freedom in return for carrying out some investigations in Bristol, he jumps at the chance. Arriving in the city, Daniel begins his search for the missing Catholic conspirator known as Spero Pettingar, but almost immediately finds himself caught up in another mystery – a series of murders. Are they all part of the same plot or is something else going on in the flooded city?

Like Maitland’s earlier novels, this is a dark and atmospheric story with an interesting historical setting. I’ve never read anything about the Bristol Channel Floods of 1607 (or 1606; Maitland uses the old Julian calendar rather than the Gregorian), so that was something completely new for me. The descriptions of the devastated city in the aftermath of the wave are vivid and even quite eerie and almost otherworldly. It’s always refreshing to read historical novels with a setting other than London, and the flooded Bristol, in a superstitious age when natural disasters were often attributed to witchcraft or messages from heaven, was the perfect choice for this particular story.

Although there a few real historical characters in the book, notably Robert Cecil, most are fictional. Daniel Pursglove, the central character in this and presumably the rest of the series, intrigued me as we know so little about him at first. What is his background? How did he come to be a prisoner? What are the special talents that make him so suitable for this task? As the story unfolds, so does our understanding of Daniel and gradually some of our questions are answered. I’m sure we’ll be learning more about him in future books.

Where this book was less successful, in my opinion, was with the mystery element; once Daniel arrives in Bristol the plot takes off in so many different directions I kept forgetting what his original purpose was in going there. Had it been shorter and more tightly focused, I think I would have enjoyed it much more; instead, I found myself struggling to keep track of what was happening at times. Still, this is a promising start to a new series and I’m definitely interested in reading the second book.

Thanks to Headline for providing a review copy of this book via NetGalley.

Book 16/50 read for the 2021 Historical Fiction Reading Challenge

My Commonplace Book: December 2016

It’s time for my last Commonplace Book post of 2016. I now have twelve lovely collections of quotations and images to look back on from my year’s reading, so I think I’ll be doing this again – or something very similar – in 2017!

A summary of this month’s reading, in words and pictures.

commonplace book
Definition:
noun
a notebook in which quotations, poems, remarks, etc, that catch the owner’s attention are entered

Collins English Dictionary

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Looking back on the past six months, Margaret realised the chaotic nature of our daily life, and its difference from the orderly sequence that has been fabricated by historians. Actual life is full of false clues and sign-posts that lead nowhere. With infinite effort we nerve ourselves for a crisis that never comes. The most successful career must show a waste of strength that might have removed mountains, and the most unsuccessful is not that of the man who is taken unprepared, but of him who has prepared and is never taken.

Howards End by E.M. Forster (1910)

~

Time is the tricksiest of all tricksters, and I should know. I was a jester by profession, but I never had the skills of Mistress Time. She can stretch herself into a shadow that reaches so far you think it’ll never come to an end or she can shrink to the shortest of mouse-tails.

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland (2016)

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john-wilmot

Talk, inevitably, turned to the projected portrait, and he was able to describe what he wanted. “I have it all quite plain in my mind’s eye: I stand by a table, so, and I’m holding out a laurel wreath over Strephon’s head, while turning to look out of the picture, and Strephon sits on a pile of books on a table, preferably eating them.”

“All highly symbolic. Are you sure you don’t want, say, a dwarf or a blind fiddler or any other accessory? Just yourself, and the monkey?”

Alathea by Pamela Belle (1985)

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Angel thought: What is this errand I am going on? Perhaps all this girl has told me is false; how do I know? Perhaps all I have heard of her is a lie, too. What is it that I have in common with her? Why do I like and trust her? For the same reason as I was hurt by the death of the manatee – we’re all females, slaves, helpless.

Night’s Dark Secrets by Marjorie Bowen (1936)

~

henry-vii

Somehow, he’d thought that as he got older he would achieve a measure of free will. When he was a man, he had often told himself after being chastised or set some complicated task of learning that no one would tell him what to do. Now he lay on his back in the dense forest, aware of the mist rising from the damp earth, the murmuring of men settling in for the night, and knew he was part of a story that had started long before he was born and would continue long after his death.

Accession by Livi Michael (2016)

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“Nice!” Stella’s anger overflowed suddenly. “And this is a nice bus, and what a lot of nice people we are, this nice morning.”

Marian managed a laugh. “You’re quite right. It’s a terrible word. I used it in an essay once, and my tutor made me read Northanger Abbey before I wrote another one.”

“Oh God, Jane Austen,” said Stella.

Strangers in Company by Jane Aiken Hodge (1973)

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There are misfortunes in life that no one will accept; people would rather believe in the supernatural and the impossible.

The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas (1850)

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full-moon

The moon was full and, urged by a restless excitement, she had been unable to remain in her room. She walked without conscious direction through a grove of oleanders and came out on the shore, pale gold sands silvered by the moonlight, a line of slowly curling surf white as ivory, and a sea of violet blue. Above her the Southern moon seemed huge and very near and she felt as if she could catch it in her hand.

Forget Me Not by Marjorie Bowen (1932)

~

“First his secretary, seated in his master’s chair, was shot,” he said slowly. “Then his butler, who was apparently after his master’s Scotch, got poisoned. Then his chauffeur met with a very mysterious accident, and finally a man walking with him down the street got a coping stone on his head.” He sat back and regarded his companion almost triumphantly. “What do you say to that?” he demanded.

“Shocking,” said the young man. “Very bad taste on someone’s part. Rotten marksmanship, too,” he added, after some consideration. “I suppose he’s travelling for health now, like me?”

Mystery Mile by Margery Allingham (1930)

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jane_shore_-_weir_collection

She raised her eyes – they lighted on the masquer. The pressure of the people had forced him so close to her that their hands touched. Shore lent forward to speak to his father. The mysterious personage seized the occasion, pressed that gloved hand with ardour, and whispered in her ear.

“You have done unwisely – you might have been the beloved of a king.”

Jane Shore by Mary Bennett (1869)

~

“There are many forms of love, Violet. One can love a parent in one way, a sibling in another, a lover, a friend, an animal…each in different ways.”

Flora watched Violet’s face as everything it contained seemed to soften and a veil fell from her eyes.

“Yes, yes! But Flora, how can we possibly choose whom we love when society dictates it?”

“Well, even though outwardly we must do as society dictates, the feelings we hold inside us may contradict that completely.”

The Shadow Sister by Lucinda Riley (2016)

~

Favourite books this month: Alathea, The Man in the Iron Mask and The Shadow Sister.

As you can see, I’m very behind with my reviews, which isn’t ideal at the start of a new year. However, I do have most of them written and scheduled to be posted throughout January. For now, I would like to wish you all a Happy New Year!

The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

the-plague-charmer The village of Porlock Weir appears to be under a curse. Janiveer, a woman rescued from the sea following an eclipse of the sun, has warned the villagers that plague is approaching and that only she can save them – for a price. It’s a price that nobody is willing to pay, but it’s not long before the disease reaches their small coastal community and there are some in the village who begin to wonder whether they have made the right choice. The year is 1361 and the horrors of the Great Pestilence of thirteen years before are still fresh in people’s minds.

In The Plague Charmer, Karen Maitland tells the story of Porlock Weir through the eyes of several different characters: Will, a dwarf; Matilda, devoted to her religion; Christina, who has given birth in secret at nearby Porlock Manor; and Sara, a mother trying to protect her two young sons. It’s a complex plot; each of these characters, and others, have storylines of their own, but they all come together to form a dark and magical mixture of myth, folklore and legend, love, murder, religious relics and secret cults.

There were so many things to like about The Plague Charmer. I particularly loved the setting – a little fishing village on the Exmoor coast – and learning about the lives of the people who lived there, steeped in tradition and superstition. It was interesting to watch the people of Porlock Weir deal with the arrival of the plague at a time when so little was understood about the causes of illness and death, a time when even a natural phenomenon such as an eclipse caused panic and terror. Whether or not Janiveer really possessed magical powers, it was easy to see how she was able to take advantage of the fears of the villagers to manipulate the situation to serve her own ends.

Although I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters, I did enjoy getting to know them all, especially Will, the ‘fake dwarf’. Not a natural dwarf, but one created by his master in a most horrific way, to be sold for the entertainment of rich noblemen. Due to his size and the treatment he has been forced to endure, Will looks at the world differently from the other villagers and is in the unusual position of being not quite ‘one of them’ but not quite an outsider either. He’s a great character and one of only a few in the novel who behaved with decency and humanity. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that there were too many characters and too many subplots (one in particular, involving Sara’s sons, Luke and Hob, added very little to the overall story, in my opinion). I found the constant switching between viewpoints distracting and would have preferred to have spent longer following one character before moving on to the next.

Getting back to the positives, I enjoyed reading the author’s Historical Notes at the end of the book. These provided an opportunity to learn more about the background to the story and some of the people and places that are mentioned (most of the characters are fictional, but a few, such as Sir Nigel Loring of Porlock Manor, are based on real historical figures). I was also pleased to discover that we are given the answers to the intriguing riddles found in the headings of Will’s chapters. Some of them were easy to guess, but others had left me baffled!

Finally, I should probably leave you with a word of warning. Like the other Karen Maitland books I’ve read (The Vanishing Witch and The Raven’s Head), this is a very dark story and can be quite gruesome at times; you need to be prepared for bad things happening to the people of Porlock Weir, and that includes the children. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly a fascinating and atmospheric one.

Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.

The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of magic and alchemy, murder and blackmail, set in the early thirteenth century. Earlier this year I read my first Karen Maitland novel, The Vanishing Witch, and loved the combination of history, mystery and the supernatural. This book includes the same elements but the supernatural one is particularly strong, making this a darker and more atmospheric read.

The Ravens Head The story revolves around three young people who are drawn into an alchemist’s search for power. Beginning in France in 1224, we meet seventeen-year-old Vincent, apprentice to a scribe in the service of Philippe, the Comte de Lingones. Bored with life in Philippe’s chateau, Vincent tries to blackmail the Comte, but when his attempt fails he finds himself on the run in possession of a silver raven’s head which seems to have a mind of its own.

In England, meanwhile, a young woman called Gisa is working as an assistant to her uncle, an apothecary, when she comes to the attention of the sinister Lord Sylvain who enlists her help with his secret experiments. Nearby, a group of white-robed priests known as the White Canons are running a small and exclusive school for young boys. One of these boys is five-year-old Wilky, taken from his parents as payment of a debt, and renamed Regulus. When Wilky’s friends start disappearing from their beds in the middle of the night never to return, the boys begin to wonder what is really going on.

I loved the first half of this book and was intrigued by the circumstances of each of our three main characters. I found Vincent’s story particularly gripping, possibly because his chapters were narrated in the first person and this made it easier for me to connect with him. The other two storylines were written in third person present tense and although I’m not really sure why this was necessary, it did help to distinguish Gisa’s and Wilky’s sections from Vincent’s. I was curious to see how the story would develop for each character and how their separate threads of the novel would eventually be woven together.

The book failed to hold my interest right to the end, unfortunately. Somewhere in the second half, I thought the plot started to lose its way and descend into a string of action sequences, alchemical experiments and gruesome secret rituals. I’m sure other readers will enjoy all of this more than I did; I do like historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural, but I prefer it to be more subtle than it is here. After so much build-up and so much care taken in setting the scene and introducing the characters, I was left slightly disappointed at the end.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric and eerie novel, though. The parts of the story told from Wilky’s perspective are particularly effective in that respect – seen through the eyes of a little boy who has no idea what is happening, the world of the White Canons is both bewildering and terrifying. The Gisa and Vincent storylines also have undercurrents of darkness and danger – and Lord Sylvain is a great villain!

Having now read Karen Maitland’s two most recent novels I’m looking forward to going back and reading her earlier ones.

I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley.

The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland

The Vanishing Witch Karen Maitland is an author I’ve been meaning to try for a while. With two of her novels on my tbr pile to choose from, I decided to start with this one, The Vanishing Witch, as it had been waiting the longest.

The story is set in Lincoln and covers the period between September 1380 and September 1381. As you may know, 1381 was the year of the Peasants’ Revolt when large sections of the English population rebelled in protest against excessive taxes. I actually read a non-fiction book about the Revolt just before Christmas – England, Arise by Juliet Barker – and this provided me with a lot of background knowledge. However, even if you know nothing about this period of history, you should still find The Vanishing Witch easy enough to follow. The Revolt does play an important part in the plot, but this is first and foremost the story of fictional Lincoln wool merchant, Robert of Bassingham, and his family.

When an attractive widow called Catlin asks Robert for advice regarding an investment, the merchant is only too pleased to help. Despite his reassurances to his wife, Edith, that his relationship with Catlin is purely business-related, he soon finds himself falling in love and it’s not long before the widow, her young daughter Leonia and adult son Edward have become part of Robert’s household. With Edith seriously ill, Robert’s two sons, Jan and Adam, become suspicious of Catlin’s motives – a suspicion shared by the family servants.

A few miles away, in the village of Greetwell, another man is also facing difficult times. His name is Gunter and he is a boatman, responsible for collecting and delivering cargoes of cloth. Work has been sparse lately and when the King’s commissioners arrive in the village, Gunter knows he will struggle to pay his taxes…

I found The Vanishing Witch a very entertaining and enjoyable novel and am quite happy with my first introduction to Karen Maitland’s work. There were plenty of things to like – the time period (not a very popular choice for historical fiction, which made it all the more interesting), the dark atmosphere, the touches of the supernatural, and the plot, which twists and turns as secrets are uncovered and revelations are made. I particularly loved the way Maitland altered my perceptions of the characters as the focus moved from one to another; she made me wary of some of them from the beginning, but I was never quite sure whether or not that wariness was justified!

By telling the stories of both Robert of Bassingham – a wealthy merchant – and Gunter, one of his workers, Maitland is able to explore what life was like in the 14th century for people at different levels of society. However, while the mystery revolving around Robert and Catlin was compelling, the storyline surrounding Gunter’s family and the Peasants’ Revolt felt less developed. This subplot had the potential to be as interesting as the other one and I was disappointed that it wasn’t explored in as much depth.

I’ve mentioned that the author has added some supernatural touches to the novel: each chapter begins with a superstition, a piece of folklore or a description of a spell. These don’t have a lot of direct significance to the story but they are fun to read and are part of the overall atmosphere of the book. There are also some sections of the novel narrated by a ghost, whose identity and role in the story we don’t learn until the end of the book. I didn’t guess who the ghost was and I was surprised when I discovered the truth!

So will I be reading more Karen Maitland? Yes, of course! I’ll start with her new one, The Raven’s Head, then go back to explore her earlier novels.