Saturday, April 4, 2015

The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

This review originally appeared in the Historical Novels Review Issue 71 February 2015. You can also see it online here

The Raven’s Head is an intoxicating blend of history, mystery and magic, and Maitland’s storytelling is deft and detailed. Told in the form of three interlocking narratives, the stories converge beautifully. The raven’s head is a beautiful carved silver object covered in alchemical symbols, and Vincent is stuck with it after his attempt to blackmail his master causes him to leave his job as an apprentice scribe in France. On the run, Vincent is a wanted man and begs passage to England hoping to sell the head and make enough money to become a wealthy man. However, the raven’s head is powerful, and it refuses to be sold. Meanwhile young Gisa, the apothecary’s niece, must put all her knowledge of herbs and plants to use in her new position as a servant for the mysterious alchemist Lord Sylvain. We also get the story of young Wilky, given to the Abbey where the strange and secretive White Cannons promise an education for young boys in their care, but when the boys begin to disappear it seems they also have a darker purpose.
Each story is spun out separately, but in the final section of the book they come together as Lord Sylvain’s experiments grow increasingly dangerous and magical. Maitland’s research is superb, and her storytelling wonderfully captures the period. The book also includes a useful glossary of medieval words and some historical notes on the supernatural beliefs of the time and the practice of alchemy. Highly recommended.

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