The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland
|The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland|
|Category: Historical Fiction|
|Reviewer: Ani Johnson|
|Summary: 14th century historical fiction with a bit of whodunit and more than a hint of the supernatural. Life was sadly cheap, dark and dirty as England teetered on the edge of the Peasants' Revolt but in the hands of an expert it's turned into a great story.|
|Buy? Yes||Borrow? Yes|
|Pages: 512||Date: August 2014|
|Publisher: Headline Review|
|External links: Author's website|
More and higher taxes are being levied on the English by teenage King Richard II and his uncle/advisor John of Gaunt to pay for the wars against France. They may cause annoyance to the rich but they're breaking the poor, people like Lincolnshire river boat man Gunter and his family. Meanwhile some of the better off are facing problems from other quarters. Cloth merchant Robert of Bassingham is losing his stock before it arrives due to theft and unrest among the weavers in Flanders. It's not a good time to be English and eventually something will snap; we're heading towards 1831 and the peasants will be revolting.
Fans of British author Karen Maitland (and there are many) will know she adores all things mediaeval, a love that began after she visited the beguinage (city of women) in Bruges. Therefore it's not surprising that this, her sixth novel and fifth set against the Middle Ages, shows that her talent is as enduring as her affection.
As was the case in her last book Company of Liars Karen picks an historical event and augments it with an other-worldly presence. Indeed, The Vanishing Witch is narrated by a ghost who watches over all the proceedings with a dead ferret. (Nice touch!) Gradually as the plot unfolds, we realise their identity and eventually the full connotations of their death hits us.
I won't say too much about some of the characters as our perceptions of them changes over the story and I wouldn't want to spoil anything. Let's just say that Karen's devotion to period detail coupled with her talent for conveying emotion (particularly fear and panic) provides a sturdy skeleton on which to build a strong story with some unexpected twists and gasps.
Robert may stick in our minds for many reasons but our hearts will side with Gunter (or was that just me?). He and his family are our object lesson in the utter devastation caused by King Richard's poll tax. Was John of Gaunt behind Richard's swingeing demands? That depends on which school of thought we subscribe to; Karen believes he was. However, this becomes immaterial when we see the inhuman brutality carried out in the name of the crown, including soldiers inventing their own methods to test virginity.
The book may begin as a beguilingly gentle tale but as darkness falls on justice the thrills and blood shed combine with intriguing questions. One that kept me guessing was the identity of the spectre-like monk and, more importantly, which side he was actually on.
All is well-written but some paragraphs stand out, like the moments of a woman's poignant wistfulness as she realises she's destined to care for others' children while never becoming a mother herself.
The novel builds and builds till the explosive qualities of the seat-edger of a dual climax. As Wat Tyler's army reaches its target of London, witchcraft runs rampant in Lincoln. This is very clever (while the perceived natural order of government is challenged in London, the perceived laws of nature are challenged elsewhere) and, as we skip between the two locations, it ensures that any other demands on our lives recede till we've reached the end. Although I don't think any of us would like to live during an era like that, Karen makes it a great place for a literary visit.
(Thank you very much to Headline Review for providing us with a copy for review.)
Further Reading: If you'd like to read more about the relationship between King Richard and John of Gaunt, we recommend (for the romantic at heart) The Scandalous Duchess by Anne O'Brien. If you're more interested from the supernatural angle, we just as heartily recommend a superlative trilogy that starts with A Discovery of Witches by Deborah Harkness.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland at Amazon.co.uk.
You can read more book reviews or buy The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland at Amazon.com.
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