I was born of the Devil. That is what they said. I was a conjure of night and fog, and the grave was the womb from which I emerged. Abandoned as a baby outside the cemetery gates and raised by the town’s executioner, Marcus grows into a giant as unfeeling as Death. Traveling fanatics arrive in his Bavarian town bringing not the Word of God, but the Great Dying. As plague consumes his world, Marcus searches for his missing daughter. Following her tracks in the snow, he encounters the mad, the desperate, and the wicked—and a resourceful young child whose hope and resiliency infect him as the plague did not. Plaguewalker is a dark but ultimately redemptive historical novel set in Bavaria in the mid-fourteenth century and told from the perspective of its protagonist, the amoral executioner Marcus of Ansberg. As readers journey through a world upended by the plague, they will experience both the brutality of the period and the awakening of a conscience in a man who had believed himself damned. “A stunning and thoroughly satisfying debut...A riveting, moving tale of atonement and reconciliation, redemption and salvation. The author's audacious choices—a fearsome executioner and expert in torture as point-of-view character and protagonist; the Black Death as catalyst for this same anguished man's evolution and deliverance—pay off in a page-turner of a book that's near-impossible to put down. Tarlach's feel for time and place is authentic and evocative, her language crisp and poetic, and her characterization Marcus, stoic and struggling, is an effective, affecting narrator, while bold little Brenna wins the reader's heart right along with her protector's. All told, Plaguewalker is one of the best novels I've read in years.” -Paul McComas, author of Unforgettable, Planet of the Dates, and Unplugged
I have been, among other things, a journalist, a diplomat, and a pastry chef. I've lived on four continents and traveled through the other three. Wherever I wander, writing has been the one constant in my life.
I began researching the story that would ultimately become Plaguewalker while living in Bavaria in the early 1990s. It would be the first novel I wrote that was inspired by my travels. I am currently at work on the final draft of a fantasy novel, The War's End, and its sequel, The Guardian. Like Plaguewalker, both novels involve a great deal of walking in the cold, one of my favorite pastimes and the place where I hear my characters best.
Perhaps not coincidentally, I currently live and work at McMurdo Station, Ross Island, Antarctica. Tales about my experiences here, as well as other travels through the Southern Hemisphere, can be found at storiesthataretrue.wordpress.com.
A quick, but not necessarily easy read - by that I mean you'll find the protagonist, Marcus - an executioner in Bavaria escaping the plague - unlovable, unsympathetic and a tad inaccessible, but if you stick with him on his journey of redemption, it will be well worth it. The writing is tight, painterly but not flowery (no flowers could grow in that snowy landscape hah!).
Interesting little book. The tale of executioner, torturer, brothel owner, and damned soul on a journey to find his daughter but finds redemption instead. There are layers to the themes here and the story is engaging, set in 14th century Germany, amidst the Black Death plague. Our protagonist begins his tale telling us, "I was born of the Devil," but ends his story with "I am not what I was." His road in between is worth a read.
I enjoyed every minute of this book, not to be compared with Hangman's Daughter; its a wonderful story in its own class. Character development was delightful and I think I related to the main character a little. Between the plague, the isolation and the myriad of other struggles; the internal conflict of Marcus were the loudest. His transformation in the story is satisfying, and realistic. The what I find to be fascinating lifestyle of an executioner and his family is described in great detail; the sights, sounds, and feelings of this story (some disturbing) come very much alive. The paradox of a man killing or torturing his fellow man as a profession, one that apparently required skill and even respect; was one I had not previously considered. A must read for any historical fiction fan.
I'm editing reviews, and while I read this more than five years ago, it remains one of my favorite HF books.
I adore Plaguewalker by Gemma Tarlach. It is a dark tale that blankets you in the fear, superstition, and ignorance of the Middle Ages.
Marcus of Ansberg lives a grim life as the town Scharfrichter (executioner, confession extractor, and ironically healer) in 14th century Bavaria during the Black Plague. He is despised and ostracized by all, forbidden from many normal things like walking in town or showing his face, and makes his living by committing heinous acts of violence against his fellow man, but he slowly finds redemption and new purpose as he pursues the Plaguewalker.
This book is similar to The Hangman’s Daughter by Oliver Pötzsch in that they are both about Bavarian executioners, but that is where the similarity ends. In my opinion, Plaguewalker is infinitely better. I was hooked from the first line and captivated until the last. At 180 pages, this is a perfectly written short novel. There is nothing I would add or remove from the story.
Plaguewalker is an interesting exploration in prejudice and social ostracism based on superficial behaviors. Marcus of Ansberg is the Scharfrichter (executioner) of the town he lives in, and as such, he is not allowed to hunt, live with others, walk through the marketplace without his black and hot executioner's mask on. What is his right is torture for information, execution, and running the town's brothels. Several whores live with him, including one, Elise, who is the mother of Marcus' daughter, Sabine.
Initially, I found Marcus dry and shallow - and I assumed he would be a stereotypical dark and brooding main character, but a dull one. And he fit that description rather well, especially as his internal dialogue was perfunctory and without much emotion.
However, as the story progressed, I found his character peeling back layers and showcasing a bit more...empathy is too strong a word, but emotional exhibition. He didn't showcase his emotions through expressiveness, but rather, through thought and simple behaviors, like burying the bodies of the whores (one can argue he did this out of necessity but I do think he did it partly out of some level of respect for the dead).
As the story progresses, Marcus grew on me. Not so much as someone I'd want to become friends with, but more as a study in human character. He develops fatherly concern towards his lost daughter, whom he goes through trouble to find, and to a young girl, Brenna, who he picks up on his journey to find Sabine.
The story was a bit slow, but it did showcase overt and background prejudice, a la the burning of the Jewish Quarter, hatred towards executioners and whores, and blame spread as the Black Plague sweeps through towns. I did find these story elements rather cliche, however, as much as prejudice is distasteful. I'd have preferred the author to come up with more ideas of how prejudice was apparent in that society, and how it affected characters on a more personal level.
All in all, I found the writing to be as dispassionate and removed as Marcus, with touches of emotionality involved. Perhaps that is simply the author's voice, or perhaps that is the voice she explicitly chose because it matched Marcus' personality. Regardless, the story was too shallow and relied on too many character and narrative cliches for me to enjoy it fully.
One thing I didn't quite understand was that several times in the book, it was mentioned that his daughter had feet large for a girl. I thought this "clue" would mean something later on in the book, but it wasn't really used for anything obvious. The best I can guess is that you're to take it to mean that she is strong and can manage her way through life.
I did greatly enjoy the overall rooting for the villain (Marcus), though, and think more books should explore that theme.
This book is like a hidden gem. From the first sentence to the last the story is captivating in a unique way. I love how she made the protagonist an odd one, which adds a delightful feel of originality. The story follows Marcus, who's the town's executioner, and through certain circumstances, he finds himself in the odd situation of tracking down a girl who he just learned was his daughter from one of the prostitutes in a brothel he lived in during 14th century Germany amongst the Black Plague. For fear of spoiling anything, I will let the reader read the synopsis for a better description of it, but this is a story you will not regret reading. And I am shocked to find it with such few reviews. Great author!
This was told from a very interesting point of view. The plot itself isn't much new, but the journey was worth it. The ending was alright, but felt a bit abrupt -- the story was long enough, but could definitely have been a bit longer, it hadn't overstayed its welcome yet.