The Gallow's Curse by Karen Maitland

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The Gallow's Curse by Karen Maitland

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Category: Historical Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Elaine Dingsdale
Reviewed by Elaine Dingsdale
Summary: A moving and eventful tale of life at the time of the Interdict, in 13th century England. A dictatorial King persecutes his people bringing hardship, fear and loathing their way, whilst they struggle to survive under his persecution.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: March 2011
Publisher: Michael Joseph
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978 - 0718156350

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This is the eagerly anticipated, and long awaited third novel by the immensely talented author Karen Maitland. It seems as if her ever expanding and permanently loyal fan base will not be disappointed in any way by her latest offering. It's rare (if ever), that I would be moved to give a 5 star rating to any novel - but this one richly deserves the highest of accolades.

Set in medieval England at a time when Church services and functions were suspended by the King, this gives a real edge to the narrative. People have had their one source of comfort removed from them - they have no idea when its services will be resumed, and they all go through their individual and collective lives in fear - effectively the same perhaps as living in a police state in this century. By placing the novel in the time, it gives the reader an intriguing glimpse of life at a time about which not too much has been written in the fictional world. Fortuitously too, set in the years after the Crusades, we are given some truly fine scenes about being on Crusade in the Holy Land.

But once again, the true strength of the novel lies in the wonderful characters. Not such a vast array as in previous novels, but this works much better for the reader. We come to know the central characters much more thoroughly, and sympathise hugely with their problems. The two central characters - Rafae and Elena - are immensely likeable, and very well depicted. Rafae tricks Elena into helping him in a somewhat superstitious practise concerning the recently deceased Lord of the Manor, whom he serves. Much though we dislike the way he tricks her, he redeems himself by being a huge support to her in her subsequent problems - and is instrumental in her survival. He is a truly caring and charismatic character, and I thoroughly enjoyed hearing his version of events.

Most moving perhaps were the years he spent on Crusade - and which he fully explains at a late stage in the novel. This gave great depth to the overall narrative - and the scenes in the Holy Land, and Rafae's life prior to this are amongst the best in the book. There are some truly magnificent scenes in these episodes - moving, frightening, awe inspiring, and heartbreaking - and they are well worth the wait! I confess to getting impatient to know exactly what had happened - but once again Maitland played a master stroke by delaying this denouement till close to the end, where it assumes even more intensity than it may have otherwise done. A masterly stroke.

Many of the characters - even the less worthy - seem to have a common decency and concern for their fellow man - traits sadly lacking in the upper classes and nobility of the time. Perhaps oversimplified into good/bad - but it does make for a rattling good yarn! There are scenes of humour alongside the scenes of horror, and the minor characters give some interesting insights to this. The madam of the brothel for example, is a superb creation who comments thoroghly on the foibles of her girls and customers - but she has also has the underlying,innate decency that we see in the main characters, and takes great risks to protect her girls.

The plot is interesting, and never falters. One crisis is overtaken by another, which gallops apace to it's extraordinary conclusions - and extraordinary it was. I didn't see the final twist - not by a long chalk! I was left stunned and stupefied by the ultimate scenes, and spent much time thinking about their ramifications - and hoping with all my heart that they are laying the ground for a sequel. There is most certainly the potential.

Finally, the added short snippets from The Mandrakes Herbal, make interesting reading - they lure us into this world of superstition and witchcraft, making us believe that the plants have the powers described! A clever and delicate touch, which only adds to the enjoyment of this magnificent work. It deserves to win many prizes, and I hope it does - if you like historical fiction with an imaginative edge, do give this a try. You will not be disappointed.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Additional reading - The Heretic's Daughter by Kathleen Kent

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

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


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