Company of Liars by Karen Maitland

Well, I guess we’ve got to start from somewhere and the easy best way to start is with the review of a book. I still find it kind of thrilling to have started this and, in a way, I am happy to start with something that I liked (which implicitly means it’s universally good).

I can’t remember exactly when I bought this book and why it caught my attention among the others in the library – I am sure it was probably raining outside and the local libraries are the best place to spend some time waiting for Edinburgh to change its mind again on the weather. It usually changes its mind again while I walk back home to get me wet anyway – who deserves joy anyway?

Going back to the book…

The story takes place in England in 1348. The black plague has reached the country and is forcing the population to extreme measures to survive. People are abandoning the towns close to the sea convinced that the pestilence will nor reach them inland.

There was a new king and his name was pestilence. And he had created a new law – thou shalt do anything to survive

In a market in the south of England we meet Camelot, a relic trader and the narrator of our story. He also meets someone, Narigorm, a rune-reader and, in a way, the most enigmatic character we will meet. Camelot feels uncomfortable around the girl and departs hoping not to meet her again (which, to be honest, made me say: “Of course, Camelot, rest assured!”)

A series of unfortunate, and maybe-not-so-random, events brings Camelot to meet and bond with various other characters in this story. A group of nine is slowly formed during the travel path that leads to the north and hopefully away from the pestilence.We have Camelot, the wise old relic trader – implicit leader and guide of the group and the reason everybody stays somehow together. Rodrigo and Joffre, master and apprentice musicians, accompany him from the start – the first, a solid paternal teacher to which I only have to blame the stereotypical italian cursing habit, and the second that I have to thank for showing me again how someone doesn’t really need a personality to be an annoying character. Damn you Shinji Hikari!

Other three join the group shortly after. At first Zophiel, a conjurer and leader-wannabe of the group – treacherous, sarcastic and touchy (in the age of trolls, the best character I guess). Despite Zophiel’s resistance, the group also bonds with a couple: Osmond, a painter without license or master, and Adela, his lovable wife who is pregnant.

Other two soon join the crew: Pleasance, a midwife with the skills of a doctor and an old acquaintance of us, Narigorm, now abandoned by her “I-have-the-habit-of-beating-up-little-girls” master and stuck with Pleasance (sorry Camelot!).

Last to join the group is Cygnus, a storyteller with a wing in place of an arm, escaping from the accuse of being a murderer.

The story follows this group of misfits (or D&D party given the healer, the sorcerer and the bards) while they try to live together to escape the black plague. Everything made harder by Zophiel’s attitude towards anyone he believes to be slowing him down and his secrecy around a set of boxes he is carrying in his wagon. If this wasn’t enough Adela’s pregnancy doesn’t allow her to help the rest and forces everybody to constantly help her, Joffre’s irresponsible behaviour causes them problem with anyone they meet and Camelot believes that every misfortune happening to them is caused by Narigorm runes – according to him, not only a meant to read the future but to write it too.

Up until here it would be an ordinary D&D road-trip with some pestilence on the background if it wasn’t for the fact that, unbeknown to the characters themselves, what is hunting them is far most dangerous, cunning and close than the pestilence itself. The howls of a wolf following them at every step.

We were just preparing to settle down for another cold night when we heard the wolf again. A wolf’s howl, however often you hear it, still sends shivers down your spine.

The characters will reveal their secrets while an air of tension keeps swirling throughout the entire book and becomes denser and denser around the reader.

The writing style is simple and fluid. It’s fast to read and keeps the reading pace quick. I find it, at times, a bit verbose since it seems repeating the same concept over and over – it could have used the same space to give more depth either to the characters or the general situation (the pestilence). We see everything through Camelot eyes – this is both good and bad. On one side this creates a feeling of distrust toward what we are reading – since we see Camelot lying many times – but on the other it restricts us to a single point of view. I could expect this from an introspective book but I have more trouble living with the same in a book that tells an adventure involving not one or two but up to nine protagonists.

The number of protagonists is also a handicap of this book because it limits the depth of their portraits and their development. Everyone starts and ends without changing. There is some repentance, but no real evolution. At a certain level, I also feel like the characters are just being used by the book – they seem to appear when we need them and then disappear functionally to make a point.

Karen Maitland made a great job of building tension in this book – the reader will feel the danger from the very start. Narigorm is a particularly fascinating character, made me doubt whether she was a child damaged by violence or a dangerous monster as Camelot believed.

The writer tries to go beyond pure narration of her story but when she tries, I am sorry to say this, she fails. I like when a writer is able to give me context of what happens in the environment the characters are in, but in this case the author just goes here and there giving some hints about how much bad rulers or religious people are and then flies away from the argument every time without closure. The same with issues such as discrimination of homosexuals or jews.

I very much enjoyed the stories told by the protagonists, some of which reminded me of medieval poetry – they were great stylistically and told me about the characters much more than the rest of the prose has done throughout the book.

Many people complain about the ending of this book finding that it doesn’t give closure, or that the closure is different from the one they expected. I disagree. I found the dangling ending fascinating and appropriate to a book that didn’t give us anything but single-sided opinions on the facts happening.

All in all, it’s been a good reading. I’ve found it entertaining, made me curious enough to keep on going over night without stopping and gave me chills at times. I heard many saying this is a “reinterpretation of the Canterbury Tales” to which I respond “marketing bullshit”.

If you keep it quiet and do not expect the “Divine Comedy”, you’ll enjoy it.

 

***

And from now on…

More on the finale controversy [Contains Spoilers]
I feel like I have to write this. So many people are complaining about this ending that I would like to say more than the “I am right and you are all wrong” I said above (despite, it’s true guys, let’s accept it, I am right and you are all wrong).

Many say that the entire book is basically historical fiction and it is denying any supernatural option just to forget all of this at the very end turning into a horror/fantasy story. I think that saying this, we fail to consider that the writer told us this story from one of their characters’ point of view. We feel what Camelot feels – despite so, every time Camelot thinks that Narigorm could be the cause of something that happened, another more rational theory becomes more plausible.

Camelot considers himself (or herself – gratuitous spoiler!) a rational person and feels to be fading into madness. A clear, rational, explanatory ending would have ruined this. Again, it would have been much more boring and predictable (in a way) for it to have a plain, scientific explanation – that was the expected ending, and it is not the job of a storyteller to give the readers what they expect but to push them down the hill when they think something else will happen.

Moreover I really like to think of Narigorm giggling while everything happens – give me this joy at least, I need it!

More on the characters [Contains Spoilers]
The characters are another point that hurts me about this book. They were great. A fantastic cast that went underused. All of their depth ended up being linked to their secret. All of their personalities too. Reveal the secret, die, repeat.

I found this silly and predictable.

Some of them aren’t used for anything else. Pleasance does literally nothing apart what is told of her during fast forwards. She just tells us her secret and hangs herself. Joffre (oh god Joffre!) is a young kid who suffers. I get it, I really do – but he keeps on doing the same thing over and over. No sign of any kind of evolution in a story spanning for months and months. And Osmond (who is this guy?) essentially lives by the side of Adela or he doesn’t exist. What we know on the guy is through Adela’s and his secret – literally a couple of pages.

Even the relationship between the protagonists is unnatural and clearly fictional. They become “friends” in the blink of an eye after exchanging two words – I do understand they need each other as Camelot keeps repeating to justify the situation to the reader but, in a world in which everybody seems reluctant to trust strangers, how are these nine people so trustful?

No real friendship grows between them – almost no relationship at all – during months and months of living and travelling together. The love Camelot feels for Rodrigo is thrown there, at the end, without a real reason or indication. Do these people care if someone dies? Of course they do! For a page or two and then it’s all fine. Are they willing to betray each other, abandon each other or even kill each other? Of course they do! Don’t get me wrong, I understand it. I would even like it. The fact is that their actions and reactions feel artificial to me.

I think I learned something as a writer – if something is functional to the story but you cannot give it any depth to make it believable or real, change your story to cross it out, people will notice otherwise.


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