Company of Liars
by Karen Maitland
"On that morning, I thought I was doing them a kindness, saving them from learning the hard way how to survive on the roads. I thought I was sparing them days of growling bellies and the nights sleeping cold and friendless.... But now, I live with the knowledge that it would have been kinder to have passed them by on the road then to draw them into what was to come."
Camelot, the old relic seller, travels alone through medieval towns, selling "hope" in the form of fake saints bones. By chance, he meets two minstrels from Venice, hard on their luck. Then, one, by one, as rumors of the plague approach, a small company gathers: a couple with a baby on the way, a charlatan magician, a storyteller, a midwife, and an unsettling little girl who reads runes. And they all have secrets. Secrets that, one by one, begin to destroy them as they are stalked by a presence even more frightening than the pestilence.
This is an amazing book! A mix of the premise of The Canturbury Tales, the character dynamics of Lost, the brutality of Game of Thrones, and the spine-tingling horror of...something very scary (I don't usually watch or read anything scary, so I have no comparison).
First, the premise: a group of strangers from different walks of life travel together. Like in Canterbury Tales, these travelers tell stories to pass the time. The stories both conceal and reveal the truth about the teller. They present who the character wishes to be, and yet you get a glimpse of who they are trying to hide underneath all the metaphor.
Second, the characters were fantastic. All were flawed, but you came to see good in each of them as Camelot did. And yet, there are moments when you remember that you don't know them very well. Maybe all is not as it seems. The comradery and the infighting were a joy to read. They don't all like each other, but since they must survive, they are forced to forge an interdependence.
Third, the medieval world pulled no punches. Two cripples in a town must get married and have sex in front of everyone because it is said to keep away the pestilence. Terror of the Jews runs rampant and they are blamed for deliberately causing the plague. Even those who might be Jewish are rounded up and tortured. Bodies lie in the street, dead from starvation or disease. Or from violent ends. It is not a Disney portrayal of the middle ages, to be sure, but there are moments of joy that shine the brighter for the darkness.
Fourth, the terror. I haven't been more scared of a book since reading The Chamber of Secrets as a kid. I knew that book had a happy ending, so I kept reading, but I knew that if I kept reading this book alone in my house at night that I would not sleep. Maitland leaves little breadcrumbs for you that all is not right. Sometimes it is a glance. Sometimes it is an omen. Sometimes it is the narrator reflecting on the story. She also has a talent for when to stop talking. When to leave a moment to the readers imagination. She knows how to end a chapter, not always with a cliffhanger, but often with a warning of darker things to come. And all the while, the howl of a wolf follows the traveling group from camp to camp, never showing a hair, but always stalking just out of sight. As the book progresses, members of the company begin to die one by one, and (spoiler alert) none of them are killed by the plague. As the evil keeping pace with them pushes the travelers further and further north, they are forced to examine if the evil is in fact already in their midst.
I know that you will enjoy this book. Or if you don't enjoy it, you will at least finish it, close the book, swear under your breath, and then listen for a faint howl of a wolf for the rest of the night.
Other books like this:
The Doomsday Book by Connie Willis
An American Plague by Jim Murphy