Wolf's Reviews > Company of Liars

Company of Liars by Karen Maitland
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's review
Jul 06, 2011

liked it

It's a great idea. A company not of pilgrims telling tales to pass the time that illuminates their characters, but a company of disparate refugees from disaster telling stories that simultaneously try to conceal the truth, whilst displaying other aspects of themselves. Research is carefully employed to help recreate the vanished world of the mid-fourteenth century; often grim and dark, often mysterious from a modern perspective - all the more so because this is more of a work of Magical Realism than a straight historical novel. The stories told by the different companions are carefully reworked versions of traditional stories - we have the devil's nursemaid and the swan brothers, for instance - have the extra power of stories retold by many tongues already. And it slowly, undeniably, begins to build into a compelling story.

But there are real problems. The careful research deployed makes the historical errors all the more obvious. The brief prologue manages to squeeze two in: the burning of heretics was unknown in England until the reign of Henry IV at the very end of the century and vampires were not a preoccupation of the English, judging by the lack of traditional stories about them, and the word was unknown in Britain until the end of the eighteenth century (revenant would have been the more likely english term). Those interested in the runereader's skill might puzzle at the use of norse runes but a patron Irish goddess and be worried by the lack of care that leads to Havamal being described as Anglo-Saxon in the historical note.

Such errors are forgivable, but worse still is the ending. The climactic resolution lacks for any real climax. The genuine tension generated is simply allowed to dissipate - it is a bit of damp squib. The final chapter, something of an epilogue, seeks needlessly and unconvincingly to tie up loose ends for the narrator and reveal the truth before sliding towards a predictable twist in the tail. Even with the weaknesses of the ending of the main narrative, the story would be better without this final chapter.

A curate's egg therefore. Despite its problems, overall, I'd still recommend it.

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