What’s it all about?:
The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, author of the best-selling and much-loved Company of Liars, will delight fans of Kate Mosse or Deborah Harkness seeking a new, dark fix.
Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.
Any attempt to sell the head fails … until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain – unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.
Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural, The Raven’s Head is a triumph for Karen Maitland, Queen of the Dark Ages.
What did I think?:
Full disclosure time – I’m a massive fan of Karen Maitland and have been since her excellent book Company of Liars which introduced her readers to the dark and gritty world of the Middle Ages. I was therefore very excited to receive a copy of Karen’s new novel, The Raven’s Head from Karen’s publicist in return for an honest review, many thanks to Caitlin Raynor and Headline Books. The story is set in the 13th century and involves a number of intriguing characters, one in particular may win the grand title of Villain Of The Year.
Vincent is a seventeen year old boy who is apprentice to a scribe in the household of Philippe, le Comte de Ligones. He fulfils the role of general dogsbody, running around after the whims of the elderly Gaspard whilst trying to avoid his ferocious stick, beds down on a smelly, uncomfortable and very inadequate pallet at night and dreams of a life out of drudgery. When he happens upon a secret which Philippe is attempting to hide which could have drastic consequences for his family, he grasps the opportunity to try and blackmail his master in return for a better life. The tables are turned, however when Philippe gives him an important mission – to carry an intricate and valuable silver raven’s head to one of his contacts.
Our next main character is a young girl called Gisa, who also hasn’t had the easiest life. She works as an assistant in her uncle’s apothecary shop whilst also tending to her bed-ridden aunt’s every desire. There’s nothing wrong with her aunt really, but she enjoys making the girl run circles around her (and occasionally rub a bit of lotion on her..ugh!). Gisa is almost relieved but very apprehensive when she is sought out by the notorious and much feared Lord Sylvain to be his assistant and help him with his “laboratory work.” However, things start to take a more sinister turn when she realises exactly what his experiments entail…
Lastly, we have a group of priests known collectively as the White Canons, headed by the mysterious Father Arthmael that takes boys away from their families at a young age in order to settle a debt with the assurance that they will be teaching the children and that they would fare better away from their poverty-stricken home. One such boy is Wilky, taken from his penniless and desperate mother and father and given a new name – Regulus. We must question what is happening in the middle of the night however, when a young boy is chosen and taken from his pallet and more often than not, never returned.
There are so many different threads to this story and believe it or not, they are all connected and come together in the end to produce a darkly magical (literally) and spell-binding (also literally) tale with a nail-biting finale that kept me on the edge of my seat. I loved everything about this novel – from the quotes that begin each chapter which are from a genuine alchemical textbook to the scene-setting that Karen Maitland envisaged. This period of history was an incredibly superstitious one and if you did fall ill, the apothecary was usually your best bet, even if their strange concoctions seem slightly irregular (or even psychopathic?) to modern society. The author invokes the smells, sounds and sights of the medieval age so beautifully that it seems effortless although you have to appreciate the amount of research that must have been undertaken to produce a novel such as this. Finally, the characters in the story are superb, no matter how minor a role they are to play. From the wonderfully innocent Gisa to her hideous aunt, from the dastardly villain and ultimate bad guy Lord Sylvain to the cocksure lad with a heart Vincent – I really enjoyed reading about them all. In this novel, Karen Maitland has cemented her role as Queen of the Dark Ages and I truly believe she’ll earn herself a lot more followers with this offering.
Coming up – don’t miss my interview with Karen Maitland where I quiz her about superstition, medieval food and, most importantly…would she ever “dog-ear” a book?!
Would I recommend it?:
But of course!
Star rating (out of 5):