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Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Company of Liars (2008)

by Karen Maitland

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Company of Liars has the subtitle a novel of the plague. It makes me wonder if the person who designed the cover ever read the book. It takes place in 1348 as the plague has started to overwhelm England, but the plague is only one of a number of reasons why nine outcasts have taken to the road. The disease has changed the landscape through which these travelers wander, but it is not the cause of their suffering. Fourteenth century England had plenty of other reasons why it was a hard time and place to live.

The story is told by an old character who is known to the readers as Camelot, a profession rather than a name.

I am, after all, a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins.

Camelot, who is clearly a seller of lies, is joined by eight others. These include Zophiel, a magician who owns the cart and horse they are using and who has a number of boxes with unknown contents, Osmond and Adela, a young couple who are expecting a child, Rodrigo and Jofre, an Italian musician and his apprentice, Pleasance, a midwife, and Cygnus, a storyteller who has a swan's wing in place of one of his arms. All of these people have secrets they do not want to reveal. But they also have brought another traveler with them: Narigorm, a young, pale skinned, white haired girl who is a mystic and who has very little use for liars.

This novel has strong characters and an excellent feel for life during the fourteenth century, which is the aspect I found most interesting. But there was more to it than that. Karen Maitland handled the subjects of human sexuality, gender identification, and bigotry in interesting and sometimes surprising ways. She also mixed mysticism and reality in ways that made me think.

Steve Lindahl – author of Motherless Soul and White Horse Regressions ( )
  SteveLindahl | May 18, 2014 |
I wasn’t sure if I would like this book since it is set in England during the mid 1300’s, not my favorite time period. But I was pleasantly surprised and was kept enthralled throughout the book. Nine traveling strangers meet along the road as they desperately try to outrun the Plague. All have secrets and all try to cover their secrets through lies to each other and sometimes even to themselves with deadly consequences. I was able to figure out a couple of the secrets early on, but others not at all until they were revealed at the very end.

Although this is set during the Middle Ages, most of us would agree that it was still an unenlightened era similar to the Dark Ages when the Church still ruled and controlled every aspect of every life through fear-mongering, taxation, religious mysticism, and pagan ritual. Maitland’s research of this era is excellent and her descriptions of both characters and landscape are vivid and realistic.

What Maitland captures best is the idea that although much has changed in terms of enlightenment and living conditions since this period, basic driving forces like love, lust, jealousy, and fear of the unknown have not changed at all.

Maitland holds the reader’s attention to the last page of its 576 pages with suspense and tension. This is historical suspense at its best.
( )
  trishrope | Feb 7, 2014 |
The characters have all the depth of those in fantasy role-playing games. There are no real 'secrets' as everything is signposted and reinforced several times over. But it is a page -turner and their are some lyrical and evocative descriptions of landscapes and weather. ( )
  dylkit | Feb 3, 2014 |
Nine non-pilgrims try to outrun the Black Death while protecting their secrets in 14th C. England. This is a good yarn and the clues to the individuals secrets begin to drop early on, which is the carrot that keeps one reading.

However, I couldn’t tell what this book wanted to be – historical fiction or horror/fantasy. As a mix of the two, it suffers and deteriorates toward the rather rushed ending.

Maitland writes solidly but not lyrically in spite of the fact that she spends much of the narration in descriptive passages. She wants us to know that life was nasty, brutish, and short in those days. She doesn’t want us to know what truth lies behind the lies each character struggles to preserve, even as each serially tells his/her own private tale during their weeks on the road, as they struggle onward to no particular physical destination. Encountering death at every turn, the Company spends most of its energy on just trying to keep body and soul together. The presence of a white-haired child in their little group makes that increasingly perilous.

Not a great read but solid escapist fiction. ( )
  Limelite | Jan 2, 2014 |
An excellent audiobook.

It has been a while since I enjoyed an audiobook as much as this one. it was an excellent combination of well written book and skillful narrator (David Thorpe). And although I would be hard pressed to identify the accent used by Mr Thorpe for Camelot, the lead character, it had an air of authenticity.
The book is set at the time of the plague and although it is not primarily about the plague itself, it does paint an excellent picture of the atmosphere of fear, suspicion and despair that prevailed at the time.

Camelot is wandering the byways of England, keeping body and soul together by selling 'relics' from saints and other holy men. At a time of such loss, these keepsakes are popular to ward off evil. Camelot prefers to travel alone, but he gradually acquires a motley band of companions, who help and hinder each other along the way. It was the interaction of these characters, along with a certain amount of magic or witchcraft, that grasped my attention and pulled me through the story. Each of these companions has something to hide (hence the title) and as we travel with them, their secrets are gradually revealed.

I was wondering how the author was going to wrap it all up at the end, but I wasn't disappointed, the ending was quite clever and certainly unexpected.
The first book I've read by Karen Maitland, but I sincerely hope it won't be the last.
Recommended. ( )
  DubaiReader | Dec 18, 2013 |
Showing 1-5 of 81 (next | show all)
Every historical novel has its “Aren’t you glad?” moments. In COMPANY OF LIARS, a jewel of a medieval mystery by Karen Maitland, those would be the times when you realize how lucky you are not to be living in England in 1348, when three separate plagues broke out among a population already beaten down by the deprivations of the Hundred Years War.

added by y2pk | editNew York Times, Marilyn Stasio (Oct 31, 2008)
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The truth is often a terrible weapon of aggression.
It is possible to lie, and even to murder, for the truth.

Alfred Adler, psychiatrist

Wir haben die Lüge nötig ... um zu leben.
We need lies ... in order to live.

Friedrich Wilhelm Nietzsche, philosopher
In memory of my great-aunt, Jane West. A woman of infinite compassion, who taught me to love nature, history, and stories.
First words
'So that's settled then, we bury her alive in the iron bridle'.
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Haiku summary
The plague has arrived.
The liars' company flees.
Secrets are revealed.

Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0385341695, Hardcover)

In this extraordinary novel, Karen Maitland delivers a dazzling reinterpretation of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales—an ingenious alchemy of history, mystery, and powerful human drama.

The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them.

Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group’s leader, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller . . . from the strange, silent child called Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each has a secret. None is what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all—propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.

Magical, heart-quickening, and raw, Company of Liars is a work of vaulting imagination from a powerful new voice in historical fiction.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:17:58 -0400)

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In 1348, as the Black Plague holds England in it's grip, nine strangers attempt to outrun death. Each member has their own story to tell and each has a secret.

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An edition of this book was published by Penguin Australia.

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