My third historical novel read in April for my 12 in 12 Challenge is The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland. It is set in the early thirteenth century in Norfolk and Northern France. This is the fourth of this author’s books I have read, most of which are set in the same time period.
The story revolves around two young people and a child, each of whose narrative is told separately until they come together at the end. One is an apprentice to a scribe in Northern France who tries a spot of blackmail, is set up to be murdered and escapes to England with a strange treasure which seems to have a grip on his mind. One is an assistant to an apothecary who is desired by the local squire for her knowledge of herbs and her virginity. The young boy is taken from his home and brought up in an abbey where sinister experiments are taking place and other boys disappear mysteriously.
At the start of the book the supernatural elements of the story are mostly in the imagination of the characters or can be interpreted in more than one way but as the book progresses you begin to realise that the men in this story have dark powers and to gain more they are prepared to sacrifice those they can use profitably or those who get in their way.
This is a dark book. All the people in it are flawed in some way or another, except for the boy Regulus who is an innocent. No one’s motives are pure and betrayal is a key part of the way that people operate. The supernatural elements are also horrific in places. There is no lightening of the atmosphere and no attempt at humour; this book is dark from beginning to end. I found that the despairing tone and the knowledge that things were only going to get worse made the book hard going in places. It was not that the writing is hard to access but that the tension and the sense of impending doom were a bit much to take on occasion and made the book seem long and slow.
This is an accomplished historical novel which seems to me to be accurate but also allowing that many superstitions were actually true. I didn’t feel like giving up but I did wish that it had been lighter in tone on occasions although I have noted the same in the author’s other books I have read.