Review The Raven’s Head




I first met Karen some ten years ago now, at a literary festival in Lincoln, and I was delighted to do so. Only a few weeks before I had read her stunning and evocative book THE COMPANY OF LIARS, and it had blown me away. I was fascinated by her depiction of a group of travellers passing through the plague-torn countryside of England, especially by the chilling development and end. It still remains with me now.

After one hour on a stage with her in front of an audience, I asked if she’d like to join Medieval Murderers – she has been a firm friend ever since.

However, I have a firm policy here on my blog. I will not review any book that I do not think deserves to be here. If I have a bad book, no matter who wrote it, I will not review. If I think it’s really a stinker, I just won’t review it. Often there is a good reason. In recent years I have had to refuse to review books by the world’s best-selling writers because, to be honest, I couldn’t finish them. The writing was sloppy, the plotting poor or the characterisation rubbish.

So, I picked up my friend’s book with some trepidation. I needn’t have been concerned.

The Raven’s Head takes us a little earlier in time, to 1224. In England, a boy is taken from his family to the local monastery. He has been promised to the monks. Meanwhile, in France, a lord demands a mysterious proof from his librarian and scribe. A trainee scribe, Vincent, watches in bafflement as the old man searches through his records before suddenly beginning to write a long item. This is greedily accepted by their lord.

But Vincent saw the fraud develop. He takes his knowledge to his lord and attempts the gentle art of blackmail to procure for himself a rather better lodging than the tower with his master.

That is the start of the story. These two, intertwined with the story of Gisa at Langley, are the key to the book. And it is another of Karen’s stories that is utterly impossible to put down.

Basically it is set around two concepts: Karen has been influenced by the medieval troubadours, and brings their peripatetic existence to life in Vincent, but the other driving narrative force belongs to magic and alchemy, and the terrible conflict between them.

Karen has a way of bringing to life the people of the medieval period. She can describe them and their lives with precise, but never dry language that draws the reader in. You are involved in the lives of her characters in a way that few novelists can manage with modern people.

At the heart of much of Karen’s work lies superstition and religion, and this book is no different. She has researched medieval magic and alchemical tomes, and uses quotations from early Christian and Islamic alchemists for each chapter. However, although these fascinate (and occasionally appal!), Karen never lets them get in the way of her story. It thunders on relentlessly, while you feel the panic and rising terror of the players on her stage, all the way to the final climax.

I have written about Karen before. I love her as a friend, I admire her as a professional, but this, I think, is her best yet. She is consistently astonishing in the precision of her knowledge and the sheer inventiveness of her stories.

I thoroughly recommend this and all her other works.

You can find my comments on her last work, THE VANISHING WITCH, here.

THE RAVEN’S HEAD by Karen Maitland

Trade Paperback: 9781472215062

Ebook: 9781472215079

Also available in hardback or as audio download from Headline Review.

7 Responses to “Review The Raven’s Head”
  1. Jack Eason says:

    Reblogged this on Have We Had Help? and commented:
    Yet another review from Michael Jecks :)


  2. noelleg44 says:

    This sounds fantastic – definitely going into my TBR pile!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. MoldiOldi says:

    Thank you for your review and recommendation. I recognize her name from The Medieval Murderers, one of my favorite series. I will be reading this one.


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