The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland

I loved Karen Maitland’s medieval mysteries, Company of Liars: a novel of the plague and The Owl Killers and although I didn’t think The Vanishing Witch had quite the same magic spark I still enjoyed it. So when Lovereading offered me a proof copy of The Raven’s Head for review I was keen to read it.

Publisher: Headline Review
Publication date: March 12, 2015
ISBN: 9781472215055

Summary from Karen Maitland’s website:

Vincent is an apprentice librarian who stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master. With the foolish arrogance of youth, he attempts blackmail but the attempt fails and Vincent finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head.

Any attempt to sell the head fails ‘¦ until Vincent tries to palm it off on the intimidating Lord Sylvain ‘“ unbeknown to Vincent, a powerful Alchemist with an all-consuming quest. Once more Vincent’s life is in danger because Sylvain and his neighbours, the menacing White Canons, consider him a predestined sacrifice in their shocking experiment.

Chilling and with compelling hints of the supernatural.

My thoughts:

Set in 1224 in France and England this is a dark book. I found parts of it very uncomfortable and disturbing to read and yet also very compelling. Life in the medieval world was cruel and brutal and The Raven’s Head describes that world in minute detail, evoking the superstitious fear of the period.

The story is told from the three main characters point of view -Vincent, Wilky, a young boy taken from his family to live in a monastery in Norfolk where unspeakable terrors await him and the other young boys, and Gisa also living in Norfolk, working in her uncle’s apothecary’s shop. Their lives are connected through Lord Sylvain who is trying to find a way to bring the dead back to life and the abbot, trying to find the elixir of life – both experimenting with alchemy.

Karen Maitland provides a cast of characters and sets out the historical background and provides notes and a glossary on the practice of  alchemy during the Middle Ages, all of which I found indispensable. Each chapter is headed by a quotation taken from the writings of early Christian and Islamic alchemists – most of which I found incomprehensible.

She explains that alchemy was a dangerous practice, many chemical experiments could go horribly wrong – as in this book. Alchemists worked in secret. It was mystical, as they searched for the means to transform the base soul of man into pure incorruptible spirit, as well as physical, searching for the stone, elixir or tincture to turn base metals into precious metals.

Although long this is a fast-paced book and I read it quite quickly.  I enjoyed the historical setting and even though it took me right to the edge of my comfort zone as far as reading horrific detail the rest of the book made up for that in terms of a well constructed storyline and believable characters. Once I began I had to finish the book.

5 thoughts on “The Ravens Head by Karen Maitland”

  1. I’m reading The Vanishing Witch now and enjoying it, but it’s the first Karen Maitland book I’ve read so I don’t have anything to compare it with. I like the sound of this one, though I don’t know how I would feel about the horrific parts!

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  2. Margaret – It sounds as though the book really gives a powerful portrait of what life was like at that time. And as you say, it was sometimes very brutal. I’m not one to enjoy books where horrors are described in minute detail. But in this case, it sounds as though that detail adds to the authenticity. Glad you enjoyed this one.

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  3. Helen, if you like the sound of this one I’d say try it – I’m very squeamish!!

    Margot, I think the details are authentic and you can easily scan read the squeamish parts.

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  4. I have a copy of this to read. It will be my first book by Maitland and I am looking forward to reading more after seeing your thoughts on it. I will need to be in the right mood for the horrific parts though!

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  5. I have tried so hard to like Maitland’s work but it has always proved too dark for me. If this one is especially so then I suspect I am not going to get on with it, either. Oh well! You can’t win them all.

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