Saturday, August 3, 2013

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Company Of LiarsCompany Of Liars by Karen Maitland
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

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.

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