I have found that, when I want to travel back to the dark ages, Karen Maitland is a wonderful guide. She has so clearly studied the period, she so clearly loves the period, and she conveys all of that in wonderfully imagined and told stories.
In Iceland an expectant mother found herself, and her unborn children, cursed when her husband killed the last white falcons on their mountain, breaking an oath and breaking old customs for financial gain.
And in Portugal Isabela, the daughter of the Royal Falconer, is shocked and distressed as she sees good men betrayed, tortured and murdered as the Inquisition took hold of her homeland.
It was stunning. Dark, visceral, and utterly believable. I was pulled found myself right at the heart of those worlds.
Eventually the Royal Falconer was betrayed and imprisoned on false charges. Isabela begged for mercy for her father, and the Inquisitors offered her a task to save his life. A near impossible task. She was to travel to Iceland and bring back two white falcons. Within the year.
Isabela was fearful, of the dangers she would face if she took on the task and of the future she would face if she did not. She went, driven by a wonderful spirit and by the values that her father had instilled in her. And she turned into a heroine to cherish.
The story faltered as Isabela set off on her journey. There was still much to hold the interest. A travelling companion, who I knew but Isabela didn’t, had been charged with preventing her from completing her task. Others who might not be all that they seemed. And a few dramatic events along the way. But the drop in pace, the realisation that Isabela was bound to reach Iceland to bring the stories together and because there were more pages ahead than behind, left me space to notice a few things. That the language felt a little too modern – nothing blatant that I can point too, but a definite feeling. And that one or two elements were just a little too dramatic.
But when we finally reached Iceland I was swept away once more, as the two strands of the story met in a dramatic, and well thought out final act.
The conclusion gave some answers, and it left some questions dangling. Which felt right.
I found much to love. The wonderful mix of history, myth and legend. The facts and the old stories about falcons and falconry that were interspersed with the story. The drama and the storytelling. I felt the climate of fear in Portugal, I saw the beauty and the danger of the Icelandic countryside. Those very different worlds lived and breathed, and I learned much about history and the world that I hadn’t known before.
But I found the story of the Icelanders that was set against Isabela’s story overwrought and unengaging, and I found parts of Isabela’s own story a little predictable.
The concept was wonderful, and the evocation of time and place was wonderful. But all of that, and the high drama, rather overwhelmed the characters and the human story.
I can say that this is a gripping entertainment, but I also have to say that I don’t think it is Karen Maitland’s strongest work.
I’m still eager to see what she does next though, and I am impressed that she has found so many different stories from the dark ages to share.