The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

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The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

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Category: Fantasy
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: The usual enticing Maitland mix of hist fict with an other-worldly dusting takes us to a 14th century Devon village threatened by the plague. All human life and some spine tingling suspense is here.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 576 Date: October 2016
Publisher: Headline Review
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1472235824

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The people of Porlock Weir have heard the rumours. King Edward III has fled with his family to the New Forest to escape the Plague in London. Will it remain confined to the city? The last time no one was safe and, according to Janveer, the strange woman fishermen rescued from the sea, it'll be the same again. Janveer has a proposition though. She can save Porlock and all it will cost them is one life.

Once again Karen Maitland produces another master class in how to dust historical fiction with a shimmer of fantasy without dilution or alienating either genre's following. Here we're transported to a 14th century Devon fishing village full of people who will have to rely on their luck, wit and belief systems in order to survive a plague outbreak. They're offered a stay-out-of-a-mass-grave card but it doesn't come free. Should one die for the good of the many? If so, which one?

At a time of drought, crop failure and general bleakness, this isn't a dilemma the inhabitants spend much time thinking about. Oh yes, death is coming and we have plenty of people to keep us interested while waiting for the pandemic's sword of Damocles to fall. For instance, Sara the mother of small boys Luke and Hob, is our voice of reason, and at times despair, in a village that becomes riven by arguments and jealousies.

Then there's my favourite: Will, a dwarf and, understandably, a bit of a scallywag. He lives in a world which offers him bitterness and a hermit's cave rather than community and companionship but he's definitely someone we want on our side in a conflict. He's one guy we'll still feel the same about at the end, but there are others who…

Meanwhile at the other end of the social scale in Porlock Manor, young Lady Christina has a secret that could ruin her future and risk her safety if it ever got out. Add that to Father Cuthbert, the sort of monk that Chaucer would recognise and we realise that, even without the miasma of Plague death, this isn't a totally caring-sharing time to be alive.

These are people who grow on us. By the time the village decides on a pretty draconian fate for those who display symptoms (or are near those who display symptoms), we're there, wrapped in the atmospheric pages with our friends wincing on their behalf.

For those interested in the many historical manifestations and peculiarities of the Plague, I would definitely recommend Karen's history notes at the back. The idiosyncrasies of the 1361 version are actually stranger than fiction even if we can guess at logical reasons now. There are also some interesting notes on the accompanying apocalyptic cults.

Back at in the story, Karen's usual high standards are definitely maintained with some great sub-plot lines and more twists than a shop full of cough candy. Its main plot echoes the bleakness of Exmoor's rugged weather-torn landscape as well as the situation in which the novel's inhabitants find themselves. This makes it a really good read rather than a cheery one. Then again, I'd rather have really good than cheery. Indeed this is as much one for first time Maitlanders as it is for the fans.

(Thank you, the good folk at Headline Review, for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals then we also recommend any Karen Maitland novel such as The Vanishing Witch for instance. If you're already a fan or would like to stay with the Plague vibe, we also highly recommend Plague by CC Humphreys from a later – and perhaps more famous - outbreak.

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Buy The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland at


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