What’s it all about?:
The Vanishing Witch by Karen Maitland, author of the hugely popular Company of Liars will thrill fans of CJ Sansom and Kate Mosse with its chilling recreation of the Peasants’ Revolt. The reign of Richard II is troubled, the poor are about to become poorer still and landowners are lining their pockets. It’s a case of every man for himself, whatever his status or wealth. But in a world where nothing can be taken at face value, who can you trust? The dour wool merchant? His impulsive son? The stepdaughter with the hypnotic eyes? Or the raven-haired widow clutching her necklace of bloodstones? And when people start dying unnatural deaths and the peasants decide it’s time to fight back, it’s all too easy to spy witchcraft at every turn.
What did I think?:
This review comes with many thanks to the lovely people at Book Bridgr and Headline Press for allowing me to read the latest novel by one of my favourite authors, Karen Maitland. As fans of the author will know, she is a wonder at combining the turbulent times of the Middle Ages with a little bit of the supernatural, a recipe that always results in a gritty historical mystery that never fails to keep me on the edge of my seat. This latest offering is set in the 14th century in the city of Lincoln against the backdrop of the Peasants’ Revolt. Richard II is on the throne and poverty is rife across England so what does our King do to assist those in need? Well, listen to his trusted advisor John of Gaunt of course and introduce a new tax to be paid for every person over fifteen years of age in a household. Furthermore, the way in which the King’s Commissioners went about checking to see whether someone was over fifteen years was so lewd and crass that it is no surprise the peasants revolted!
Our foray into the medieval involves a host of wonderful and wacky characters, laid out for us at the beginning of the book by the author under the heading Cast Of Characters (obviously). This always fills me with slight trepidation as there seem to be so many to contend with, but like her other novels, Maitland tends to focus in depth on a select few. In The Vanishing Witch we learn about two families on either side of the poverty scale, the first a boatman called Gunter, happily married and living with his family just outside the city. He ekes a living by transporting cargo from place to place with the help of his son. The new tax really hits his family hard, being in quite dire straits to begin with, and their quest for survival is prominent throughout the novel.
The head of the family on the opposite side of the scale is a wealthy wool merchant called Robert who is married to Edith and they have two sons, Jan the elder, confident and brash, who will take over the family business in time and Adam, scholarly and quiet. Robert’s troubles first begin when he is approached for advice from recently widowed Caitlin. Poor Robert practically bursts with pride at the attention Caitlin shows him and as Edith becomes seriously unwell, torn between his loyalties to his wife and gullible to her womanly wiles, he allows Caitlin to slowly worm her way into his life, eventually becoming his wife when Edith dies. She brings along two children of her own, Leonia and Edward, the former casting her own spell over Robert’s young and impressionable son, Adam. Can Caitlin be trusted? What is her motive for integrating herself with Robert’s family? Is there something a bit spookier i.e. witchcraft going on?
I have so much praise for this novel I hardly know where to start! I loved the way that the author transported us to medieval England with so much authenticity that I could almost smell the streets, hear the noises and taste the swill. Prior to every chapter Maitland gives the reader a glimpse back into history with anti-witchcraft charms and spells that come directly from medieval writings and grimoires (medieval spell books). Here’s a taster of one of many that stood out to me:
“If a family member goes on a long journey, a bottle of their urine or their knife is hung on the wall. If the urine remains clear, or the blade bright, they are well. If the urine becomes cloudy or the blade tarnished, they are ill or in danger. If the urine dries or the knife falls or breaks, they are dead.”
I enjoyed every character in this book for different reasons. Some were so damn unlikeable, like Edward, that I had to keep reading to see whether they would get their come-uppance. Others, like Caitlin’s daughter Leonia, or the strange man dressed as a friar who begins to follow Robert, I was so intrigued by that I had to know their story. Friend or foe? You get the picture, I just had to know. The author certainly does not make it an easy journey for the reader and I was continually confused (in a good way!) over who to trust as page by page, a different secret emerges. Medieval England comes to life all over again in the safe hands and imagination of a fantastic author who not only knows what she’s talking about but makes it so exciting too!
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):