Grubby secrets

<strong>Company of Liars</strong>

Karen Maitland <em>Michael Joseph, 576pp, £12.99</em>

The year is 1348, and England is in the grip of the plague. Attempting to outrun the pestilence is a band of travellers: a hawker of religious relics, a Venetian musician and his apprentice, a storyteller, a heavily pregnant young woman and her husband, and a young rune-reader with white blonde hair.

Tragedy stalks their small company and it soon transpires that they have more to fear than the spreading sickness. Inevitably, their initial camaraderie is replaced by fear and suspicion.

Karen Maitland’s novel conjures a grubbily believable medieval world governed by superstition and omens. There are clear echoes of Chaucer and Tolkien in the narrative, which gallops along. But although it is tautly paced, especially once the assembled travellers start to meet their messy ends, it is also burdened by clunky plot twists and heavy-handed dramatics. Character development is frequently sacrificed in order to maintain the sense of tension.

With the exception of good-hearted Camelot, the relic pedlar with the scarred face, the travellers are a rather flat bunch and their hidden secrets are simple to guess. Maitland has an easy, readable tone and has clearly done her research, but, frustratingly, whenever this novel threatens to plunge in unexpected directions, it ends up retreating into cliché.

This article first appeared in the 18 February 2008 issue of the New Statesman, Naughty nation