Karen Maitland – The Raven’s Head

karenmaitland-theravensheadVincent 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.

The Raven’s Head is Karen Maitland’s latest historical novel, one that I’d been very much looking forward to reading. I have enjoyed Maitland’s writing on The History Girls blog and have wanted to read her work since reading reviews for Company of Liars. Earlier this week I read her previous novel The Vanishing Witch, which I really enjoyed, and I was interested to see how much of the unique style of that book was particular to that story and how much was part of Maitland’s authorial voice. Based on the sample I’ve read so far (n=2) Maitland definitely has a distinctive and consistent writing style, one that really suits my reading tastes. 

The Raven’s Head is a thriller set in the early thirteenth century, partially in France, but mainly in England. The narrative features multiple points of view and is told in both the past and the present tense. I really enjoyed these interwoven narrative modes and I found the way they developed the characters and my response to them quite interesting. For example, Vincent – one of the main characters and one of the three primary viewpoints – tells his story in the first person, but in the past tense. This created a bit of a remove for me unconsciously, as it was obvious that Vincent would survive whatever danger he encountered in the novel, which made my worry for him less immediate. Additionally, Vincent was a bit of smug git, particularly early on, which meant it took me a while to warm up to him.

In contrast, the other viewpoints are told in third-person present tense and they felt far more immediate, especially since Maitland never hesitates in killing off characters. I found the juxtapositions between viewpoint and tense interesting, since present tense is far more often used paired with a first person narrator instead of a third and you’d expect to feel closer to a first person narrator than a third person viewpoint, but it certainly didn’t work that way here.

Though I took a while to warm up to Vincent, he certainly grew on me, even if he never becomes a saint. Vincent is very much a flawed human being, one who does what he has to in order to survive – lie, cheat, steal, and more – but one with an uncanny grasp of human nature and an ability to zone in on those who are vulnerable to his brand of trickery. His understanding of the power of stories, the need to tell tales to explain things away and the power of gossip coupled with the callous willingness to create rumours he can then solve for his clients, is powerful, but also land him in trouble more often than not. Vincent takes care of Vincent, unlike Gisa who has a huge heart and wants to do right by everyone. I liked Gisa a lot, though she lacked agency a little until she discovers one of the Abbey boys in distress and decides to save him. In many ways the boys at the Abbey were my favourite characters in the book. Maitland writes them very well and Regulus is just lovely; I absolutely loved the bond that developed between him and Felix. I thought the way the boys’ views of events at the abbey both served to explain some of the mysteries in the book and deepen the horror and pathos was wonderful. A word of warning though, children’s deaths play a prominent role in the book. It’s never graphic, but it is there and I know that I find children dying harder to swallow since becoming a mum, so just be aware they are there.

As always in Maitland’s books the supernatural plays a large role in the narrative. In The Raven’s Head it appears in the form of alchemy. What makes alchemy so fascinating to me is the curious mix between superstition and science. Alchemists applied scientific principles to what was – and is – considered magic at best and witchcraft at worst. Apart from the alchemy and the otherworldly things that accompanied it, the most overt and unexplained supernatural entity in the book is the titular raven’s head, which Vincent names Lugh. Mysterious, creepy, and curiously nebulous in its nature, I kept oscillating between thinking it a benign talisman or a cursed idol; a question that is never completely resolved, as once again there is a more than a modicum of unreliability to the narrative, though far less so than in The Vanishing Witch.

I loved The Raven’s Head, perhaps even more than I did The Vanishing Witch. It’s a bit quicker paced and has a wonderful narrative structure. Maitland creates a vivid world rich in small details, such as the implicit competition between the apothecary and the village doctor and the cleverness of Master Gaspard’s ink recipe. However, Maitland seemingly doesn’t do ‘happily ever after’ conclusions to her tales. While The Raven’s Head ending is not truly an unhappy one, it certainly ends on an ominous note. It’s a brilliant ending, but one that left me worried about what will befall our protagonists from here on out. Those with a hankering for a gripping, early medieval tale should definitely pick up Karen Maitland’s The Raven’s Head.

This book was provided for review by the publisher.

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