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28 February 2015

Review: The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven's Head
Karen Maitland
Headline Review, March 2015
Paperback, 512pp

I received a copy of this book from Amazon Vine.

This is a swashbuckling tale of escape, magic and survival against a grim background of medieval Europe. I hadn't read any of Maitland's books before this, but will be catching up with them now.

Vincent is a penniless, orphaned apprentice scribe in France.

Wilky is a young boy wrenched from his family in England and sent to live at a monastery, spending each night in terror that he will be woken from his bed and taken away...

Gisa works for her uncle and aunt, learning the trade of an apothecary.

Through their eyes we see a rather different Europe from that of knights and princesses, kings and battles. And it's a pitiless one, with injustice, starvation or death from cold never far away.

Vincent knows this and wants to rise - so when he sees an opportunity to blackmail his master, he seizes it, setting off the action of the novel with a string of encounters, escapes and betrayals which occupy the first half of the book. In the meantime we slowly learn the history of Regulus, for whom the white-robed monks seem to have a particular purpose in mind, and Gisa.

It's all bound up with alchemy, that hybrid of secret philosophy and experimental science by which medieval scholars hoped to achieve power, wealth or immortality. In the climax to the book we discover that alchemy has been shaping Vincent's steps all along, and that there is a purpose, too, for him...

Maitland backs up her story with several pages of notes explaining terms, customs and history and each chapter opens with a quote from a genuine alchemical text. That is pretty incomprehensible stuff, to be honest, and I was intrigued by the contrast between this "real" hidden, magical learning and the typical magical/ occult system of a fantasy world.

It's a sign, perhaps, of how completely the worldview that created alchemy has been replaced by science that even made up "magic" seems more rational and systematic. You (literally) couldn't make it up. So by grounding her book in this stuff Maitland both makes it both more realistic than typical fantasy (whatever that means!) and also more alien. It's an impressive achievement, and a cracking read.

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