The year is 1341. Ulewic is a village deep in the English countryside.
For centuries the village has been ruled over by both the lord of the manor and by the Owl Masters – a pagan cult empowered by fear and superstition to dispense a harsh from of law and order.
The arrival of the church changes little, but the next arrival changes much. It is a beguinage – a house of religious women – a new community outside the village.
Suddenly there are four factions that all, in one way or another, want control of the hearts and minds of the people of Ulewic. And, of course, that causes conflict.
Ensuing events are narrated by five characters: Servant Martha, the head of the beguinage; Beatrice, a troubled young beguine; Osamma, the cast-off daughter of the lord of the manor who finds a home at the beguinage; Father Ulfrid, the parish priest with a fatal flaw; and a village child.
Each narrative voice is distinct and compelling and the story makes some fascinating twists and turns. There is much going on, but it would be unfair to say too much.
What I will say is that the Dark Ages are vividly brought to life, that the writing is simple and effective and the that the plot builds to a conclusion that provides both resolution and freedom to wonder what might happen next.
The presence of both pagan beliefs and Christianity provides much food for thought. This is often a very dark book and it shows human nature at its worst – the mysterious Owl Masters are particularly sinister. Yet it is also a book with much to say about the power of faith.
The Owl Killers isn’t quite perfect – the symbolism is a little heavy handed, a few characters just a tiny bit predictable and the ending doesn’t quite find the twist it needs to make it great.
But it does have ideas to think about wrapped up in a distinctive and compelling story – and more than enough strengths to leave me more than satisfied, and looking forward to Karen Maitland’s next book.