It’s Midsummer’s Day, 1348, in the village of Kilmington, in Devon, England during the Midsummer Fair, and the traveler known as Camelot has woken from a dream of home in the lowland hills near the border with Scotland. Camelot is not only a name, it’s also a profession:
I am, after all a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins. I offer skeins of Mary Magdalene’s hair, redder than a young boy’s blushes, and the white milk of the Virgin Mary in tiny ampoules no plumper than her nipples. I show them blackened fingers of Saint Joseph, palm leaves from the Promised Land, and hair from the very ass that bore our blessed Lord into Jerusalem. And they believe me, they believe it all, for haven’t I the scar to prove I’ve been all the way to the Holy Land to fight the heathen for these scraps?
But miles away, in the coastal town of Melcombe, something else happened on this fateful Midsummer’s Day: the morte bleue, the Black Death, the pestilence, has crossed the ocean to cast it’s deadly shadow on England’s shore and wend its way across the land. Soon Camelot and a motely crew of unintentional travelers – a master musician and his apprentice, a side show operator and illusionist, a story teller, a painter and his pregnant wife, and a young albino fortune teller and her companion – are on the road attempting to scratch out a living while staying a step ahead of the plague. But each one of the company carries a secret; each one of them is not what they seem.
Karen Maitland’s Company of Liars is reminiscent of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales in setting and caricature, but it is far more eerie and full of mystery than the Middle English classic. While each of the characters in Company of Liars eventually spills their own story, and while there are folk tales and tales of superstition woven throughout the book, Camelot remains the sole narrator and moral compass of the group (seller of bogus religious relics notwithstanding). And while The Canterbury Tales was a collection of stories, Company of Liars has a chillingly entertaining story arc that carries the tale from beginning to end – something that cannot be said for many of the characters in the book!
As a writer who has a doctorate in psycholinguistics, it’s not surprising that Ms. Maitland has filled Company of Liars with a gorgeous rendition of the English language. The speech patterns, mannered cadences, and the use of archaic terms (but thankfully not the archaic spellings!) lend a sense of the exotic to even the squalor and superstitious natures that fill the book. She does seem to have done her research on beliefs and sentiments of the day; I especially loved how tales and fables were taken at face value, both as entertainment and as accepted truths. (It did seem that the author was, at times, unable or unwilling to give up her modern bias by affording her main characters a rather wide social tolerance, which tended to chip away at the book’s authenticity for me, but as Company of Liars is not being touted as a strict historical reenactment, but instead, as a really good story, then I’m more than willing to forgive her for that perceived discrepancy.)
And there’s a somewhat macabre mystery that winds its way through the book that digs deeper that mere plot point; there are situations that are unsettling in their rustic mythos that build the mystery, yet though they expose an ignorance, are nevertheless are part of our European heritage. Rampant corruption and greed on part of church and state remind us that it was a primitive time in more than simple rural sentiment, as well. Ms. Maitland allows us to glimpse how life in the Middle Ages was both mystical and cruel, free and yet so very hard.
If you love historical fiction, as I do, and if you are captivated with the Middle Ages, as I am (not in a romantic sense, but in a “how the heck did we ever survive that?” sense), then you will thoroughly enjoy Company of Liars.