Title: Company of Liars
Author: Karen Maitland
ISBN: 9780440244424, Delta Trade Paperbacks, 2009
Genre: Historical Mystery
First Line: "So that's settled, then; we bury her alive in the iron bridle."
The year is 1348. Camelot, hideously scarred peddler of religious relics and hope, is in Kilmington for the Midsummer Fair when he learns that plague has reached the port cities of England. All he can think of is heading north to safety. Seemingly within the blink of an eye, eight other people have joined with Camelot in order to escape death: a young married couple, two minstrels, a one-armed man, a serving woman, a showman with a wagon filled with curiosities for exhibit, and a strange albino girl child.
The weather forecast is simple: rain, rain, nothing but endless rain. Food and shelter are scarce. The further they travel, the more they hear of other ports closing due to the plague-- and then the dreaded scourge begins moving inland.
The various personalities within the group begin to chafe, but they know they're stronger as a group than as individuals:
The truth was, though none of us admitted as much, we had begun to depend on each other to survive. We shared all our food and ale, which we bought with the little each of us earned from the villages we trundled through. We made makeshift shelters when we couldn't find an inn or a barn, and together helped to gather fodder for the horse.As their journey continues, strange things begin to happen, and one by one members of the group begin to die. Each member of the group has a secret, and they are all beginning to learn that what they don't know about the others may very well kill them.
The further into this book I read, the more I wanted to shut everything else out until I'd gobbled up every last word. There's something eminently satisfying about a road trip taken with people who cannot be trusted. (At least from the reader's standpoint!) With the reasonable voice of Camelot as narrator, I began to observe the others more closely in an attempt to ferret out their secrets.
To read Company of Liars is to be immersed in another place, another time, another culture in which the very weather plays an important role in how each hour of every day is negotiated:
The rains still fell; the water continued to rise in hollows and lakes. The forests, meadows, and marshes absorbed the rain until the ground oozed water like a weeping sore....
Once, half submerged in a sodden field, we saw the statue of Saint Florian, his face battered, his millstone tied around his neck. Since their saint was unable to protect them from the rains, the parishioners had stripped his statue of his scarlet cloak and golden halo, beaten him, and cast him out to face the elements.
Some readers may find the torrential rains, the inexorable advance of the plague, and an almost total lack of trust to be much too grim. I didn't. As I turned the pages, I kept hearing mud squelch between my toes, wet strands of hair refused to stay out of my eyes, and a constant smell of wet wool surrounded me. The colder and the wetter and the more miserable I felt, I began to react to each new village, each stranger, each bend in the road with increasing suspicion. My mind was, indeed, in fourteenth century England.
Few writers can get into my head to such an extent as Karen Maitland did in Company of Liars. If only I could get the smell of wet sheep out of my nose, I'd thank her. As it is, I look forward to reading her other books with great pleasure.
[Source: Christmas gift from my husband.]