The Raven’s Head – Karen Maitland

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A little boy is removed from his family, renamed, and forced to live in a monastery with other boys in fear and horror at the secret rites that they are submitted to every night.

A scribe, Vincent, is angered by his lowly status, tries to trick his way to power, but finds himself on a long journey carrying a precious and treacherous silver raven’s head.

A young girl is drawn unwillingly into the spells, potions, schemes and obsessions of the evil lord who her village shuns.

These are the three protagonists in The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, set in rural Norfolk in 1224, and as their stories weave together and move forward they are drawn closer together by forces they cannot explain or escape. The narration switches between the three characters throughout the novel but I found that I cared equally about all three of them. They are victims of the superstitious, greedy and feudal world they live in, of the aristocracy and of the church – to escape they can rely only on themselves. Even parenthood is nothing to trust.

As in all Maitland’s novels, there is a lot of dark magic in this story. Vincent stumbles upon a secret powerful to destroy his master. With the arrogance of youth, he attempts to blackmail but it fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in the possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head. Any attempt to sell it fails, until he tries to palm it off on Lord Sylvian, the powerful alchemist with an all-consuming quest to find the secret of eternal life. Once again Vince finds his life in danger as Sylvian and his neighbours, the sinister group monks, the White Canons consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.

The author invokes the smells, sounds and sights of the age so well that it seems effortless. I read 200 pages in my first sitting. As ever Karen Maitland, known for her macabre and menacing tales, is the queen of the dark ages. There are so many twists and turns and I read the book so quickly. Though I will admit it is not as good as the other Karen Maitland novels, it wasn’t as scary but it was still good. It was dark and Gothic and all the things you would expect from Maitland who is so good at taking the threads of different characters stories and tying them together at the end for a brilliant climax. This era was an incredibly superstitious one, people looked for explanations to things that they could not understand, the characters believe the magic which makes the dark magic in Maitland’s novels seem real.

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