The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

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The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: Karen Maitland weaves her trademark blend of medieval hist-fict and mystical edging as paths of a runaway scribe, an apothecary's niece and a boy adopted by a monastery converge to meet in hell on Earth.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 512 Date: March 2015
Publisher: Headline Review
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1472215062

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In 13th century England Gisa, niece and ward of an apothecary attracts the attention of one of his more sinister clients. Elsewhere Wilky, a small child, is taken from his parents in lieu of a debt and then taken to a monastery which is a cover for something less than Christian. Meanwhile in France, Vincent, a scribe's apprentice, is framed for a theft and has to run for his life. The three will meet but under circumstances that turn out to be the stuff of dark, bloody nightmares.

British author Karen Maitland is magical. That's the only way I can explain it. Looking at her writing style logically, Karen takes a slice of medieval Britain using it for its mores, attitudes, lifestyles and superstitions rather than fictionalising history's factual characters. Then she adds a side garnish of mysticism. Basically that makes it hist-fict lite mixed with fantasy lite; a bland sounding concoction that is anything but bland. In fact, in the case of The Raven's Head it's downright excellent.

The title's bird is a jewelled brooch that's used to frame poor Vincent while turning out to be so much more than a jewelled brooch. In fact that's the joy of this novel (she says, while avoiding spoilers) – everything turns out to be so much more as we race to a climax in which shocks pile onto revelations. For Karen not only tears our preconceptions inside out, she tears at our hearts the same way. These three heroes become real to us as they take on adventures way outside our experience while engaging our concern.

Little Wilky is someone we want to keep safe as our feelings of foreboding increase and then become justified. He's a tot in a world that would horrify an adult. (He also taught me why the company that made our school rulers decades ago were called Regulus.)

Gisa is intelligent but constrained by her uncle's attitude towards her which has also taught the lass that she's too plain to be considered a marriage prospect. (Bad news indeed for a 13th century damsel.)

Then there's my favourite – Vincent. We watch him grow from a naïve tower-dweller, cut off from the world, to a streetwise manipulator, learning much in retrospect from the books he's spent years copying. His wise-cracking, never say die attitude brightens the darker moments and, believe me, Ms Maitland can drum up a darker moment or two! (There is also much blood for those who are more than slightly squeamish.)

Along with the darker moments go darker personalities and Karen does those too. It's best you find out the identities of most of them by yourselves. I'll just give you a starter for 10: beware Sylvain! Talking of beware-ing, just ensure that you answer any request nature puts to you before two-thirds in. Once the climactic crescendo starts at around that point, it becomes difficult to tear ourselves away anywhere (even to there).

Indeed be warned, this is a book that will induce Maitland mania in the reader. Those of us who already suffer will dive in and devour, realising there is no hope for us, even if we wanted it. If you have yet to experience the phenomenon's results, this is a great place to start.

(Thank you so much, Headline Review, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals, Karen's The Gallow's Curse and The Vanishing Witch come just as highly recommended.

Booklists.jpg The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland is in the Top Ten Historical Fiction Books of 2015.

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Buy The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland at


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