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The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland

The Plague Charmer

by Karen Maitland

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Remote Devon village Porlock Weir doesn't have a lot going for it. Many of the menfolk fish and the women keep hearth and family together, down by the beach lives a dwarf in a cave. One evening a great storm occurs and a woman is saved from a wreck. She tells the villagers that she wants something from them and if she doesn't get it the plague will return. Sure enough it does.

This is a complex novel set in the fourteenth century but one which mixes fable, superstition and history. Maitland has written a number of books around the impact of the Black Death on people in England and their beliefs at the time, this is a superlative example. The storylines intertwine and the narration is shared between characters giving different perspectives on the same events. The hint of the supernatural is not overplayed which I like. ( )
  pluckedhighbrow | Jun 26, 2017 |
I found "The Plague Charmer" by Karen Maitland a bit hard to get into but once I did then I found it to be a fascinating look at the Middle Ages, Black Death, and the superstitions small villages possibly had at that time.
It was an amazing historical read with quite a few separate story lines that eventually match up for a fantastic ending. The medieval era is brought to life so well and the characters are very well developed so much so that I could vividly imagine them.
Highly recommended for fans of suspenseful historical fiction.
I received a copy of this book for free from the publishers (via Netgalley) in exchange for an honest review. ( )
  Veronica.Sparrow | Apr 9, 2017 |
**This book was reviewed via Netgalley**

Maitland's The Plague Charmer is a historical fiction set in 1361 England, during the second wave of the Black Death. Porlock Weir, and its governing seat of Porlock Manor sit along the Exmoor coast. After a fierce storm lashes the coast, a woman is pulled from the sea. At first she is believed dead, but she lives, or lives again.

She's not the only thing pulled out, either. A young man named Luke drags in an old box found in the tide flats, after the tide goes out quite far. And soon after the storm, a ragged bundle is dredged out that proves to be a pair of children, bound together. It is clear that, while one was likely dead, the other was alive when first tossed in. It is soon clear why. The children bear the buboes than are harbinger to the Great Pestilence.

The woman pulled from the sea, named Janiveer, claims she can divert the plague, if the villages pay her price. It's a price none are willing to pay. She departs, and the plague kicks in full gear. Soon, people are desperate to find Janiveer. Families have been shattered, and still the epidemic rages on. Contact between Porlock Weir and Manor has been cut off, and there are things out there almost as bad as the plague. One of these is Brother Praeco and his crazy ass apocalypse cult. As all of these elements begin to converge, will anyone be left alive after collision?

This was the first historical novel I've read set during this time frame. Aside from the crazy cult people, which I could have done without, I really enjoyed this story. Janiveer and Caederyn’s thread was fascinating. It was a touch of the old world, of Celtic paganism.

There were several threads in this story. Besides Janiveer, Sara, and Will the dwarf were my favourite threads to read about. Matilda, not so much. She was as crazy as Praeco and his groupies. Maybe more so, given some of her predilections. I was glad when she got her comeuppance. Praeco too.

This story was well-written and quite engaging. Maitland weaves the stories of several different people around one another. Often chapters are devoted to a single character. In a rather daring move, she chose to switch perspective between characters, so some are first person, others third person. It takes a rare talent to handle that and end up with something good, let alone great. This was also my first Maitland book, and now I want to read more. Just got a short on my Kindle, actually :)

🎻🎻🎻🎻🎻 Highly recommended ( )
  PardaMustang | Feb 18, 2017 |
The Exmoor coast, spring, 1361. A bad storm brings Janiveer, a foreigner, to the small village of Porlock Weir. She tells them that the Great Pestilence has returned and that it will come to them, but that she will save the villagers if they agree to her price – one not payable in coin. No one agrees, thinking themselves safe in their isolated community. But of course the plague arrives, and soon the villagers fight for their survival.

Regular readers of Karen Maitland's dark historical novels know what an excellent writer she is, conjuring up the Middle Ages with her atmospheric prose and adding a dash of the supernatural, which people believed in so readily at the time the plot is set. Here she tackles the recurrence of the Black Death in England, only thirteen years after the first outbreak decimated the population; the dread and fear felt by the villagers when told that it is raging across the country again is palpable. The scenes describing the inhabitants of Porlock Weir walling up those of their number suspected of harbouring the disease are shocking, and you need a strong stomach as the author describes how the people inside the walled-up cottage gradually fall ill and die. Yes, the book heavily features the plague, but it is about more than that: it is about a community first divided by the disease, and how it eventually pulls together to survive; it is about religious fanaticism and love.

Karen Maitland is a natural storyteller, and the narrative is complex, told in multiple points of view in the first person by various inhabitants of Porlock Weir and in third person describing events outside the village; it focuses mainly on women, with the dwarf Will being a notable exception. I particularly enjoyed that the dark mysterious stranger coming to the village, bringing first terrible news and then death and destruction in their wake, was in this case a woman. As usual, Karen Maitland makes us care deeply about the characters peopling her story and sets them in a historical context that includes tradition, folklore, riddles, faith and superstition, as well as the supernatural, real or imagined. I feel that the novel could have been slightly shorter, but this is a minor quibble. Her historical notes and glossary are always worth reading, showing how deeply and well researched her tales are.

Recommended for those readers with a strong stomach who want to understand the past in all its complexity and thereby feel closer to their own ancestors, who lived through it all.

(This review was written for Amazon's Vine programme.) ( )
  passion4reading | Jan 21, 2017 |
Karen Maitland is a great storyteller.

The Plague Charmer is a fascinating medieval tale full of atmosphere and superstition. It’s a long but an unputdownable book, bringing the medieval world to life in all its brutality and hardship. I thoroughly enjoyed it. The book is set in Porlock Weir in 1361 where a village is isolated by the plague when the Black Death spreads once more across England. Following an eclipse of the sun, as a storm rages along the coast, a ship is blown ashore bringing a dark stranger, Janiveer, to the village. She warns the villagers that the plague, raging in other parts of the country will soon spread to their village and offers to save them – but for a terrible price.

It’s a complex story, told from different characters’ perspectives, following the lives of Will, a ‘fake’ dwarf, Sara, a packhorse man’s wife and her family, Matilda, a religious zealot, and Christina at nearby Porlock Manor amongst others. It’s a tale of folklore, black magic, superstition, violence, torture, murder, and an apocalyptic cult – and also of love. As the plague spreads and more horrendous deaths pile up bringing fear and hysteria, families are broken up, and hostilities surface as the village is isolated, left to fend alone.

I thought Will a fascinating character. He was not born a dwarf, but was subjected to horrific treatment as a baby, strapped into an iron bridle, compressed and deformed as he grew to form a squat little dwarf. He is remarkably free of bitterness and capable of more humanity than most of the other characters. Sara, too shows strength of character as she perseveres in her search for her two missing sons.

I like the Historical Notes, providing more detailed information about the period, the people and the location, as well as the legends, and the answers to the medieval riddles that head Will’s chapters. I particularly like the information about the plague and the various religious cults of the period. The Glossary is also invaluable, helping to flesh out the detail.

The Plague Charmer is a superb combination of historical fact and fiction. I really enjoyed reading this detailed and chillingly dark atmospheric book. It’s a memorable story with a colourful cast of characters, full of suspense and drama. ( )
  BooksPlease | Oct 20, 2016 |
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"For a terrible
price I will save your village."
Will anyone pay?

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