I picked up this book, knowing nothing at all about it, purely because I was drawn to the beauty of the cover. So I must thank the designer, because the book is a gem.
In 1348 plague reaches English shores and people begin to flee, to the north, to the east and away from ports and disease.
Camelot, a disfigured peddler, stops at a village fair to sell his fake religious relics. He plans to make for an inland shrine and winter far from plague, but his journey becomes increasingly difficult as he is joined by eight others.
Zophiel is a magician and con man who has a wagon and horse, but carries cargo that he won’t let anyone touch. Pregnant Adela and her husband Osmond have been banished by their families. Venetian minstrel Rodrigo and his apprentice Jofre have been sacked by their lord. Cygnus is a man born with a swan’s wing. Midwife/healer Pleasance is accompanied by her young albino charge, Narigorm, who casts runes.
It soon becomes clear that all have stories to tell and that all are keeping secrets and maybe telling lies. And a wolf’s howl haunts the night, following them wherever they go. The travelers are met with suspicion and hostility as move from town to town, finding no sanctuary. Civilization is breaking down and so is the group.
Karen Maitland handles this material beautifully, mixing wonderful storytelling, suspense and great entertainment and slowly revealing the truths about. The writing is vivid and evocative. It brings the sights and sounds of the medieval world to life brilliantly and the religion and superstition of the period create a dark atmosphere that builds as the story progresses.
Camelot’s narrative voice is wonderful and, while I could guess a few of the developments, most were wonderful surprises and the twist at the end was stunning.
Overall great debut novel – I could happily read this book all over again.