Company of Liars

Company of Liars

by Karen Maitland


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The year is 1348. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to flee the certain death that is rolling inexorably toward them. Each traveler has a hidden gift, a dark secret, and a story to tell….

From Camelot, the relic-seller, to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller—from the strange, silent child Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each guards secrets closely. None are as they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all—propelling these liars to a destiny more perilous than any of them could imagine.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780440244424
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 08/25/2009
Edition description: Reprint
Pages: 480
Sales rank: 442,859
Product dimensions: 5.26(w) x 8.04(h) x 1.06(d)

About the Author

Karen Maitland has a doctorate in psycholinguistics. She traveled and worked in many parts of the world, from the Arctic Circle to Africa, before finally settling in the medieval city of Lincoln in England. Her British debut novel, The White Room, was short-listed for the Authors’ Club of Great Britain Best First Novel Award. She is at work on her next novel, The Owl Killers.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

The Midsummer Fair

They say that if you suddenly wake with a shudder, a ghost has walked over your grave. I woke with a shudder on that Midsummer's Day. And although I had no way of foreseeing the evil that day would bring to all of us, it was as if in that waking moment, I felt the chill of it, glimpsed the shadow of it, as if something malevolent was hovering just out of sight.

It was dark when I woke, that blackest of hours before dawn when the candles have burnt out and the first rays of sun have not yet pierced the chinks in the shutters. But it wasn't the hour's coldness that made me shiver. We were packed into the sleeping barn too snugly for anyone to feel a draft.

Every bed and every inch of floor was occupied by those who had poured into Kilmington for the Midsummer Fair. The air was fetid with sweat and the belches, farts and stinks of stomachs made sour by too much ale. Men and women grunted and snored on the creaking boards, groaning, as here and there a restless sleeper, in the grip of a bad dream, elbowed his neighbour in the ribs.

I seldom dream, but that night I had dreamt and the dream was still with me when I woke. I had dreamt of the bleak lowland hills they call the Cheviots, where England and Scotland crouch, battle ready, staring each other down. I saw those hills as plainly as if I had been standing there, the rounded peaks and turbulent streams, the wild goats and the _wind-_tossed rooks, the Pele towers and the squat Bastle farmhouses. I knew them well. I had known that place from the day I first drew breath; it was the place I had once called home.

I had not dreamt of it for many years. I had never returned to it. I could never return. I knew that much on the day I walked away from it. And through all the years I have tried to put it from my mind and, mostly, I have succeeded. There's no point in hankering for a place you cannot be. Anyway, what is home? The place where you were born? The place where you are still remembered? The memory of me will have long since rotted to dust. And even if there were any left alive who still remember, they would never forgive me, could never absolve me for what I have done. And on that Midsummer's Day, when I dreamt of those hills, I was about as far from home as it is possible to be.

I've travelled for many years, so many that I have long since ceased to count them. Besides, it's of no consequence. The sun rises in the east and sinks in the west and we told ourselves it always would. I should have known better than to believe that. I am, after all, a camelot, a peddler, a hawker of hopes and crossed fingers, of piecrust promises and gilded stories. And believe me, there are plenty who will buy such things. I sell faith in a bottle: the water of the Jordan drawn from the very spot where the Dove descended, the bones of the innocents slaughtered in Bethlehem, and the shards of the lamps carried by the wise virgins. I offer skeins of Mary Magdalene's hair, redder than a young boy's blushes, and the white milk of the Virgin Mary in tiny ampoules no plumper than her nipples. I show them blackened fingers of Saint Joseph, palm leaves from the Promised Land, and hair from the very ass that bore our blessed Lord into Jerusalem. And they believe me, they believe it all, for haven't I the scar to prove I've been all the way to the Holy Land to fight the heathen for these scraps?

You can't avoid my scar, purple and puckered as a hag's arsehole, spreading my nose half across my cheek. They sewed up the hole where my eye should have been and over the years the lid has shrunk and shrivelled into the socket, like the skin on a cold milk pudding. But I don't attempt to hide my face, for what better provenance can you want, what greater proof that every bone I sell is genuine, that every drop of blood splashed down upon the very stones of the Holy City itself? And I can tell them such stories-how I severed a Saracen's hand to wrest the strips of our Lord's swaddling clothes from his profaning grasp; how I had to slaughter five, nay a dozen, men, just to dip my flask into the Jordan. I charge extra for the stories, of course. I always charge.

We all have to make a living in this world and there are as many ways of getting by in this life as there are people in it. Compared to some, my trade might be considered respectable and it does no harm. You might say it even does good, for I sell hope and that's the most precious treasure of them all. Hope may be an illusion, but it's what keeps you from jumping in the river or swallowing hemlock. Hope is a beautiful lie and it requires talent to create it for others. And back then on that day when they say it first began, I truly believed that the creation of hope was the greatest of all the arts, the noblest of all the lies. I was wrong.

That day was counted a day of ill fortune by those who believe in such things. They like to have a day to fix it on, as if death can have an hour of birth, or destruction a moment of conception. So they pinned it upon Midsummer's Day 1348, a date that everyone can remember. That was the day on which humans and beasts alike became the wager in a divine game. That was the cusp upon which the scales of Heaven and Hell swung free.

That particular Midsummer's Day was born shivering and sickly, wrapped in a dense mist of fine rain. Ghosts of cottages, trees, and byres hovered in the frail light, as if at cockcrow they'd vanish. But the cock did not crow. It did not hail that dawn. The birds were mute. All who met as they hurried to milking and tending of livestock called out cheerfully that the rain would not last long and then it would be as fine a Midsummer's Day as any yet seen, but you could see they were not convinced. The absence of the birds unnerved them. They knew that silence was a bad omen on this day of all days, though none dared say so.

But, as they predicted, the drizzle did finally dry up. A sliver of sun shone fitfully between the heavy clouds. It had no warmth in it, but the villagers of Kilmington were not to be downcast by that small matter. Waves of laughter rolled across the Green. Bad omen or not, this was their holiday and even in the teeth of a gale they would have sworn they were enjoying themselves. Outlanders had poured in from neighbouring villages to sell and to buy, barter and haggle, settle old quarrels and start new ones. There were servants looking for masters, girls looking for husbands, widowers looking for good strong wives, and thieves looking for any purse they could cut.

Beside the pond, a gutted pig turned on a great spit and the smoke of sweet roasting meat hung in the damp air, making the mouth water. A small _red-_haired boy cranked the spit slowly, kicking at the dogs that jumped and snapped at the carcass, but the poor brutes were driven to near frenzy by the smell and not even the spitting fire or the blows from a stout staff deterred them. The villagers cut juicy chunks from the sizzling loins, tearing at them with their teeth and licking the fat from greasy fingers. Even those whose teeth were long worn down to blackened stumps sucked greedily at wedges of fat and _pork-_crackling as the juices ran down their chins. Such a rare extravagance of fresh meat was to be savoured down to the last succulent bone.

Gangs of barefoot boys tore through the gossiping adults, hoping to distract the _scarlet-_clad jugglers and bring their clubs crashing to the ground. Lads and lasses made free, oblivious of the damp grass and the disapproving scowls of priest and clerk. Peddlers bellowed their wares. Minstrels played upon fife and drum, and youngsters shouted loud enough to wake the demons in hell. It was the same every year. All made the most of their fair, for there was precious little else to make merry with for the rest of the year.

But even in the jostling, noisy crowd you could not fail to notice the child. It was her hair, not blond but pure white, a _silk-_fine tumble of it like an old man's beard run wild, and beneath the snowcap of her hair, a face, paler than a nun's thighs, white eyebrows, white lashes framing eyes translucent as a dawn sky. The fragile skin of her bony limbs glowed ice blue against the _nut-_brown hides of the other market brats. But it wasn't just the absence of colour in her that drew my attention; it was the _beating.

Nothing unusual in a child getting a thrashing; I'd probably seen half a dozen already that day, a switch across bare legs for a carelessly dropped basket of eggs, a tanned backside for running off without leave, a cuff about the ear for no good reason except that the brat was in the way. All of the young sinners trying to dodge the blows and yelp loudly enough to satisfy the chastisers that the punishment had been fully appreciated; all, that is, except her. She neither yelped nor struggled, but was as silent as if the blows to her back were inflicted with a feather instead of a belt, and this only seemed to infuriate the beater more. I thought he'd whip her senseless, but finally, defeated, he let her go. She stumbled a few yards away from him, unsteady, but with her chin held high, though her legs almost gave way beneath her. Then she turned her head and looked at me as if she sensed me watching. Her pale blue eyes were as dry and clear as a summer's day, and around her mouth was the merest shadow of a smile.

The beater was not the only one who'd been enraged by her silence. A fat beringed merchant was shaking his fist at the man, demanding recompense, purple in the face with rage. I couldn't hear what passed between them for the shouts and chatter of the small crowd that had gathered around them, but at last some deal seemed to be struck and the merchant allowed himself to be led off in the direction of the tavern, with the onlookers bringing up the rear. The beater doubtless intended to pacify the outraged merchant with a soporific quantity of strong wine. Clutching the merchant ingratiatingly on the elbow with one hand, he didn't waste the opportunity to cuff the girl one last time with the other as he passed her, a practised blow, delivered without apparently glancing in his victim's direction. The blow sent her sprawling on the ground and wisely, this time, she stayed there until he was safely inside the tavern. Then she crawled into a narrow gap between a tree trunk and the wheels of a wagon and crouched, arms wrapped tight around her knees, staring at me with wide expressionless eyes, like a cat watching from the hearth.

She looked about twelve years old, barefoot and clad in a grubby white woollen shift, with a bloodred band about the neck that made the whiteness of her hair shimmer. She continued to stare, but not at my scar, at my good eye, with an intensity that seemed more imperious than curious. I turned away. Whatever had transpired had nothing to do with me. The girl had been punished for some crime, thieving probably, and doubtless deserved what she got, though she was obviously well hardened to it, since it had had so little effect on her. So there was no reason for me to speak to her.

I pulled a pastry from my scrip, broke it in two and tossed half to her, then hunkered down with my back pressed against the tree trunk to eat my share. I was hungry and it was a quiet spot to eat, now that the crowd had moved on. And I couldn't have eaten and not offered the child a bite, now could I? I gazed out at the bustle of the fair, chewing slowly. The pastry was as dry as the devil's hoof, but the salt mutton inside was sweet enough. The girl was holding her pastry in both fists as if she feared someone might snatch it from her. She said nothing, not even a thank-you.

I took a swig of ale to wash the dry mouthful down. "Do you have a name, girl?"


"Well, Narigorm, if you're going to thieve from his sort you'll need to learn your trade better. You're fortunate he didn't send for the bailiff."

"Wasn't thieving." The words came out muffled from a _well-_stuffed mouth.

I shrugged and glanced sideways at her. She'd finished the pastry already and was licking her fingers with fierce concentration. I wondered when she'd last eaten. Given the man's mood, I doubted he was going to feed her again that day. But I half believed her about the stealing. A girl who stood out so vividly from the crowd was not likely to survive long as a pickpocket, and it occurred to me that with her looks her father or her master, whichever the man was, might well have found a good living renting her out by the hour to men whose taste runs to young virgins. But she'd clearly angered the customer this time. Maybe she'd refused the merchant, or else he'd tried her and discovered he was not the first to come banging on her door. She'd learn ways to conceal that in time. More experienced women would teach her the trick of it, and she'd doubtless earn a good living when she mastered the art. She'd a good few years ahead of her in the trade, more than most I reckoned, for even when the bloom of her youth was gone there would still be plenty who'd pay handsomely for a woman who looked so different from the rest.

"You want me to do it for you now, for the pastry?" Her voice was as cold as her gaze. "We'll have to be quick before Master comes back; he'll not be best pleased if you don't pay in coins."

Her small icy hand tried to insinuate itself into mine. I put it back in her lap, gently but firmly, sad for her that she had already learned not to expect any gifts from life. Not even a crust comes free. Still, the younger you learn that lesson, the fewer disappointments you'll have.

"I'm past such things now, child. Much too old. Besides, it was only a bite of food. Take it and welcome. You're a pretty girl, Narigorm. You don't need to sell yourself so cheaply. Take some advice from an old camelot: The more people pay for something, the more they believe it's worth."

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Company of Liars 4.1 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 95 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Part historical novel, part horror thriller, Comapny Of Liars at first seems like it wants to be too much of everything. But this sophomore novel by British writer Karen Maitland meanages to weave all these elements into a gripping narrative which is an impressive for its psychological subtlety as it is for its page-turning plot. It is 1348 and the Black Death has England in its grasp. Camelot, a disfigured seller of the 'relics' of saints, is in the southern English town of Kilmington when a man collapses in the marketplace, covered in blue-black spots and coughing blood. After leaping to the defence of Jofre, a young musician not canny enough to tell an innkeeper that he has travelled from the north, the narrator ends up travelling with Jofre and his master, Rodrigo, moving north up the island in a bid to outrun the pandemic. They are soon joined by a creepy rune-reading child and her nursemaid, a runaway teenage couple, a mean-spirited man with a horse-drawn wagon laded with mysterious wares, and a gifted storyteller with a single white swan wing in place of a left arm. As this motley crew try to escape the pestilence pressing in from the coasts, their nights are haunted by the howls of an unseen wolf who mysteriously manages to keep pace with them. And as the dark secrets that each member of the company harbours are gradually revealed, horrific deaths occur one by one, described in stomach-churning detail. For a narrative driven by its action-packed plot, it is stunning how Maitland manages to sustain a gothic, claustrophobic air that at times recalls Edgar Allan Poe. Merry Olde England this is not. Most characters are also fully and realistically fleshed out, especially the narrator, whose own secret is handled in a clever and poignant way. The one exception is that of the rune-reader Narigorm, whose characteristics - pale, female, emotionless, speaks of doom - are rather run-of-the-mill creepy child stuff. The writer's incorporation of the actual historical customs is also fascinating, such as the village wedding held for two cripples: 'It is said that if you marry two cripples together in the graveyard at the community's expense it will turn away divine wrath and protect the village from whatever pestilence or sickness rages around it.' This is a ceremony at once comic and macabre, especially when the villagers proceed to ensure that the wedding is consummated. The only thing that spoils the novel is the rather hokey ending that calls to mind -grade horror movie franchises, the kind with a twist at tjhe end to set up the sequel. This is not a damning flaw though - there are many pages to read before that destination, and this journey really is worth experiencing in and of itself
Gracie_L More than 1 year ago
I haven't read a book like this in quite some time. The story had me going from the first few pages. The writing style set a great pace and whirled me into a world I haven't experienced - the plague of 1348. I felt personally invested in the characters and had sympahty for most of them. But at the very, I understood them. Sometimes that is what is most important.

I would recommend this book to anyone and everyone.
TWTaz More than 1 year ago
What a great book! So different than anything I¿ve read in a long time. This book was full of fascinating characters and a story that hooked me from the first page. I enjoyed this book so much that I didn¿t mind the slightly disappointing ending. The journey up to that point makes it more than worth your time.
Edena More than 1 year ago
The character development is rich and empathetic. Their deepth painted wonderful pictures in my mind. Their interaction with each other feels believable for a group of very different people forced to rely on each other's company for both physical and emotional survival.
LN_Adcox More than 1 year ago
The protagonist is burdened with eight seemingly helpless refugees as he flees the pestilence (later to be called ¿The Black Plague) across 1348 England. His willingness to allow them to accompany him and is refusal to sneak away from them later are among the very few clues to his secret. The other members of the party have their own secrets or lies. Revealing a lie leads to death. The reader is challenged to guess the lies or secrets. It was not too difficult to correctly guess the secret being hidden by Pleasance, Rodrigo and Jofre, Cygnus, and Narigorm. I was also close to guessing Osmond and Adela¿s secret as well. The clues for Zophiel and Camelot are much more subtle.

The author touches on the nature of truth and good and evil although perhaps a bit superficially or simplistically. However, it is important to believe in evil if you are to believe that the events that transpire are possible. If the idea of using a Ouija board is abhorrent to the reader, this is unlikely to pose a problem. Since the troupe seeks to avoid the pestilence, the reader sees the common horrors associated with The Black Plague from a distance - the mass graves, the stench, and the black crosses drawn on abandoned homes. What the reader experiences directly are the horrors of an empty stomach, lack of shelter and protection from the elements, fear of anyone encountered that could be a robber or that could carry the pestilence, and horror of a grey, wet and muddy environment without the joy of sunshine and warmth. The ending may leave some disgruntled, but few will find it other than surprising.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I thoroughly enjoyed this novel. It was obviously well researched. The subject matter was dark but the story was told so beautifully you can't stop reading and you don't want the story to end. Which brings me to the ending: I thought the ending was wrapped up nicely with all of the characters secrets revealed.....until that little surprise on the last page that keeps you guessing. Authors often use this little twist to end their books and I don't like it. (As did a lot of other reviewers). I like the neat little "The end" like at the end of old movies. Unless there's going to be a sequel which I doubt since this was written several years ago. But don't let it stop you from reading this well written book.
22cool More than 1 year ago
I very much enjoyed the mystery, period setting and the complexity of the characters within the historical time period. The ending was certainly a surprise, but somewhat unsatisfying. It left you wanting more.
maggiesaunt More than 1 year ago
A friend recommended this book and I opened it somewhat skeptically -- then couldn't put it down! Just when I thought I had figured out the truth about one of the characters, the truth came out and...sometimes I was right, sometimes wrong. All the characters are effectively drawn and engaging -- you can't be ambivalent about any of them, you either hate or like each of them. For anyone who is enamored of England, the Middle Ages, historical novels, this is a "must". It would also make great supplemental reading for a mature Brit Lit class, but I'd be selective in recommending it to high school kids. It's a great read!
marient7 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
THe year is 1348. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers brought together by chance attempt to flee the certain death the is rolling toward them. ach traveler has a hidden gift, a dark secrret, and a story to tell.From Camelot the relic seller, to Cygnus the one-armed storyteller, from the strange silent child, Narigorm to a painter and his pregnant wife, each guards secrets closely.
jtho on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Maitland's novel is set in England as the black plague is infecting one village at a time. A group of strangers end up traveling together, hoping to outrun the sickness as it spreads. The group includes a camelot who sells relics to the hopeful, a pregnant woman and her painter husband, a child with a psychic gift, a midwife, an angry magician, two musicians, and a traveling story-teller. Each has a secret and a story, any many of them have a connection to wolves.As the group travels northward and eastward, each shares a story from their past. Despite the Canterbury-tales artwork on the book's cover, there is not as much of a Chaucer connection as what I expected. The stories are short and placed far apart in the novel, and the journey and the relationships formed along the way are the bulk of the story. These short stories from each character give us insight about them, or act as foreshadowing. As the group travels, we meet characters in each village they pass through, a baby is born, a few deaths occur, a banishment, and possible murders. Only as secrets are revealed can the many mysteries be solved.I found myself completely absorbed into this story, eager to find out the secrets, waiting for secrets I suspected to be revealed, and feeling connected to each character. I felt as though I knew each character, and was traveling with the group.
gonzobrarian on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Imagine yourself involuntarily surrounded by a small group of travelers, forced by circumstance to cut off all interaction with society. Rumors tell of cities overflowing with corpses, and no one knows the cause nor the symptoms until it¿s too late. A grand pestilence has infected the ports, and the only safe direction is inland and ever north. Such is the historically fictitious medieval mystery Company of Liars by Karen Maitland. Maitland takes her fascination of the medieval period and constructs a very convincing and entertaining story around the occurrence of the Black Plague. While citizens are dropping like flies from port to port and across the countryside, Maitland¿s company of nine is forced to interact and eventually divulge their secrets, stories and lies in a wayward attempt at survival, claiming each one by one. The pestilence serves not only as the driving force behind the story, but also the invisible element highlighting just how ¿interesting¿ the times were to live in during that period. Ironically, her interpretation of Medieval England is surprisingly similar, though a bit more lively (especially in dialogue), to other apocalyptic voices such as McCarthy¿s The Road. Maitland skillfully illuminates a culture of indulgences, a preponderance of predestination, Jewish scapegoating, hypocrisy and the human pathos of a medieval mindset which is not so historically distant from ours.Vivid description is Maitland¿s major strength throughout the story. Not only does she deliver a magical element to the company¿s progression, she also knows how to tell a story within a story. Each character¿s secrets are deftly divulged as the story flows, until the final pages whereupon the reader won¿t reach an unexpected twist as much as a cathartic resolution. The story of the camelot is an impressive and engaging read.
nnjmom on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Company of Liars by Karen Maitland is a reinterpretation of Chaucer¿s Canterbury Tales. Set in 14th century England, during a time of fear, religious power, and superstition, it is the story of nine travelers trying to escape the Plague. As they travel inland, it becomes apparent that each one carries a secret. One by one, the secrets are exposed, with deadly consequences.There is Zophiel, the traveling magician whose wagon full of boxes is a constant source of worry. No one knows what is in them, but there seems to be someone following them who does.Osmond and Adela, a young couple expecting their first child, also travel with the group. They seem to be of too high a class to be traveling with the wanderers.Rodrigo and Jofre are musicians from Italy. Jofre has a hot head and a taste for wine, as he drinks to get away from his own secrets.Pleasance is a midwife who hides her true identity, while helping to keep the travelers healthy and caring for Adela in her pregnancy.Narigorm is a white-haired child who enchants everyone who meets her ¿ but there is a darkness in her.The story is narrated by Camelot, a traveling peddler who sells saints¿ relics and artifacts. We see and experience the story through Camelot¿s eyes and only at the end do we realize that his secret is the biggest of all.Karen Maitland is an amazing writer who digs into the faults and weaknesses of human nature, the things that people prefer to keep hidden. She uses the child Narigorm as a catalyst for the characters to confront their true natures, for better or for worst. The results are disturbing, mystical, and all too believable.Even though I wasn¿t completely crazy about this book, I kept reading because of the quality of Maitland¿s writing, and because I wanted to see how it would end. She does an excellent job of slowly revealing the truths about the nine travelers, piece by piece. The religion and superstition that permeate the book create an eerie atmosphere that becomes terrifying as the book progresses ¿ culminating in an ending that made me shiver. Though the ending was clever in that way, I still didn¿t care for the twist. But that¿s just me ¿ and I would still recommend this to any lovers of historical fiction.
cathyskye on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
First Line: "So that's settled, then; we bury her alive in the iron bridle."The year is 1348. Camelot, hideously scarred peddler of religious relics and hope, is in Kilmington for the Midsummer Fair when he learns that plague has reached the port cities of England. All he can think of is heading north to safety. Seemingly within the blink of an eye, eight other people have joined with Camelot in order to escape death: a young married couple, two minstrels, a one-armed man, a serving woman, a showman with a wagon filled with curiosities for exhibit, and a strange albino girl child.The weather forecast is simple: rain, rain, nothing but endless rain. Food and shelter are scarce. The further they travel, the more they hear of other ports closing due to the plague-- and then the dreaded scourge begins moving inland.The various personalities within the group begin to chafe, but they know they're stronger as a group than as individuals: "The truth was, though none of us admitted as much, we had begun to depend on each other to survive. We shared all our food and ale, which we bought with the little each of us earned from the villages we trundled through. We made makeshift shelters when we couldn't find an inn or a barn, and together helped to gather fodder for the horse."As their journey continues, strange things begin to happen, and one by one members of the group begin to die. Each member of the group has a secret, and they are all beginning to learn that what they don't know about the others may very well kill them.The further into this book I read, the more I wanted to shut everything else out until I'd gobbled up every last word. There's something eminently satisfying about a road trip taken with people who cannot be trusted. (At least from the reader's standpoint!) With the reasonable voice of Camelot as narrator, I began to observe the others more closely in an attempt to ferret out their secrets.To read Company of Liars is to be immersed in another place, another time, another culture in which the very weather plays an important role in how each hour of every day is negotiated: "The rains still fell; the water continued to rise in hollows and lakes. The forests, meadows, and marshes absorbed the rain until the ground oozed water like a weeping sore.... Once, half submerged in a sodden field, we saw the statue of Saint Florian, his face battered, his millstone tied around his neck. Since their saint was unable to protect them from the rains, the parishioners had stripped his statue of his scarlet cloak and golden halo, beaten him, and cast him out to face the elements."Some readers may find the torrential rains, the inexorable advance of the plague, and an almost total lack of trust to be much too grim. I didn't. As I turned the pages, I kept hearing mud squelch between my toes, wet strands of hair refused to stay out of my eyes, and a constant smell of wet wool surrounded me. The colder and the wetter and the more miserable I felt, I began to react to each new village, each stranger, each bend in the road with increasing suspicion. My mind was, indeed, in fourteenth century England.Few writers can get into my head to such an extent as Karen Maitland did in Company of Liars. If only I could get the smell of wet sheep out of my nose, I'd thank her. As it is, I look forward to reading her other books with great pleasure.
orchestrion on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As I was reading Company of Liars, I quite enjoyed it. The Daily Express called it "A page-turner", and it really is, but when I try to analyse my interest in the book, I suppose it appeals to me primarily because of my interest in medieval English history (which is precisely why I chose to read it). Maitland has an expert knowledge of medieval history which she uses very effectively in describing the scenes and activities, but mixes this well with plot development, and conversation. I never felt the urge to skip over any tedious description or blatant background-filling dialogue in order to get on with the story; as clunky as some scenes are, it flows along fairly smoothly.Generally, the characters were well developed, except for a few frustrating gaps. For example, one thing that bothered me was that, although the camelot was fairly perceptive and able to understand the others and deduce their secrets, he was maddeningly silent on the character of Narigorm. Once or twice Narigorm said something which caused conflict among the other characters and really left me scratching my head thinking, "Why in God's name would she say that?" but the camelot completely ignored it. Seeing how perceptive he was in interpreting the behaviour of the other characters, I found this silence confusing and frustrating.Although I basically enjoyed reading it, I must admit that I was extremely disappointed with the ending of the main story in chapters 29 & 30 (the last chapter serves as a kind of epilogue). You get the sense that a final conflict is building between Good and Evil, but instead of the expected showdown (and ultimate victory of Good over Evil), the story just dissipates and fades away. I understand that Maitland may have wanted to avoid a trite, conventional "Hollywood" ending, but the problem is that the rest of the book is a conventional "Hollywood" story, slowly building up to that great showdown which never comes. Perhaps she was trying to make up for this in the last dozen lines of the book, which are by far the most disturbing and sinister sentences of the entire tale, but I found this ending to be a bit of a kick in the head. The final few paragraphs suddenly jerk the story away from being a medieval mystery adventure and set it firmly in the realm of Stephen King. Before reading Company of Liars, I had read some info about Maitland's other book, The Owl Killers, and I thought it sounded quite interesting. But to be perfectly honest, after reading Liars I really felt no desire to read anything else by her. I think it's rather a pity - it's an intriguing, well-written story, but, for me, utterly ruined by such an unexpectedly empty and disillusioning ending.
CBJames on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1348, a group of people, strangers, come together in an attempt to out run the plague as it spreads across England. Nine strangers in all, each with a secret, something they can only reveal at the risk of losing their lives.The narrator is a seller of phony religious relics. He is joined by two Italian musicians, a master and his apprentice on their way to the next town, unable to return home to Italy for reasons they will not disclose. Soon they meet a an unmarried couple on the run from their parents. Because she is pregnant they join an entertainer with a wagon she can ride in sitting alongside the 'mermaid' preserved in a glass jar, the main feature in the entertainer's show. The last members of their group are a young girl who reads the future int the runes she casts and the woman who accompanies her. As they flee northwards, they form a very uneasy alliance and they tell stories, their own well as others.It's all very like a dark Canterbury Tales.Company of Liars is a very entertaining, a highly literate, air-plane book. It's very much a melodrama akin to a Victorian sensation novel, or perhaps Michael Lewis's Gothic novel, The Monk. The secrets each character keeps are extreme enough to shock; some even offend modern sensibilities. Ms. Maitland lets their revelation play out slowly, teasing her readers, almost goading them, to keep reading with a playful sense of suspense. Company of Liars isn't a thriller in the narrow escape from death sense of the genre, but the sheer volume of secrets revealed keeps the reader glued to the pages just as well.If you read historical fiction in order to learn about a period of time, Company of Liars will deliver the goods. Ms. Maitland presents a wide range of Medieval England's under-belly. Becuase no one in the company is a respectable citizen, thehistory presented in Company of Liars is not the history learned by careful study of court life or church history. However, Company of Liars is not without a few problems. First, the dialogue is very contemporary. It's not anachronistic, there's no one telling anybody to "shut up" or "get back to me," but listening to Ms. Maitland's characters talk I felt they could easily be sitting at the table next to me in the coffee shop. This is probably a concession to modern readers that cannot be avoided--any attempt to make the characters sound medieval risks making them them sound pretentious as well. But everyone sounded very American to me. Second, while I'm willing to accept that nine random people could all have very dramatic secrets, I had trouble believing that only one of the nine would be dramatically offended by their revelation. The other eight are remarkably tolerant, especially for the mid-14th century. Honestly, I woudl have a very hard time accepting some of the secrets the characters hide. And, I did guess seven of the eight secrets well before they were revealed. But even with these reservations, I'd still recommend Company of Liars by Karen Maitland very highly. If you happen to find yourself on an airplane headed towards England, or anywhere else this summer Company of Liars will keep you well entertained.
Sean191 on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Karen Maitland's second book and the first I've read by her. The historically-based novel tells the tale of a company of travelers, each not quite what they seem, trying to escape the plague rampaging through England. Even though there are nine key characters, Maitland makes good use of the book's length to develop them well. It's slow plodding at first, but as characters start to mysteriously die-off, the story picks up its pace. The last 60 pages or so really lead to a great payoff.I also appreciated the little bit of actual history of the plague at the novel's conclusion as well as the word glossary at the end. Those two additions acted like a dessert to a tasty meal.
coolmama on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Midsummer Day 1348.During the wettest season in history, the Plague spreads through England.A band of travellers: a person who sells relics (our narrator), a rune reader, a midwife, a young pregnant couple, a conjurer, a storyteller and a pair of musicians - travel through the Southwest of England camping out and visiting towns while trying to avoid the plague.Well written,with a fast pace, and a few wonderful twists and turns - I really enjoyed this book!
jakczek on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
A fantastic page turner. Highly recommended. Life like characters which are well built through the whole book. Written with such poignancy that it is a whirlwind of emotions. I have now read all books by this Author (who also aliases as Karen Mailman), and she now rates among my favourites. We need more!! Please¿ bring it on¿
thetometraveller on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In the summer of 1348 The Black Plague came to England. It started in the ports of the south and spread, along with panic and fear, throughout the country. Many towns closed their doors and refused to allow entry to any traveller passing by. Despite their attempts to avert the disease, huge numbers died and the population was reduced to lawlessness, starvation and poverty.Karen Maitland's new book is set during this turbulent time and brings together nine strangers who band together for safety while fleeing north, trying to stay one step ahead of the spreading pestilence. Camelot, an elderly peddler of holy relics, is the central character and the narrator of the story. The other travellers are Rodrigo, a Master musician, and his pupil Jofre; Zophiel, a magician and sideshow man; Adela, a young pregnant woman, and her husband Osmond; Pleasance, a healer and midwife; Cygnus, a young storyteller with one human arm and one swan's wing. Last, but not least, is Narigorm, a creepy ten year old fortune teller. (It's no accident that the letters of her name, unscrambled, spell the name of an ancient Irish goddess of strife and destruction.)Each member of the company has a story to tell and each is hiding a deep secret. Their journey will bring trials, despair and tragedy. This is a story filled with twists and turns as the fate of each character plays out. The author has drawn on ancient lore, myths and legends to weave together a haunting and eerie tale of suspense.While the ending doesn't quite tie up all the loose ends, I never saw the surprise twist coming and I love it when an author can shake up the story just when you think you have it all figured out! This is a really different and interesting take on a historical novel and I really enjoyed it.
allejean on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Karen Maitland¿s Company of Liars is a well written, consistently paced, fascinating story about a troupe of mismatched characters on the run from the plague as it sweeps across England. Though personally a fan of historical fiction from this period, don¿t let the comparison to Chaucer deter you. Maitland¿s world is accessible to those completely unfamiliar with the time period.Maitland¿s descriptive skill is exception, and certain scenes of that detail the plague are not for the faint of heart. In a sense, Company of Liars has much in common with the post-apocalyptic genre, and the portrayal of a decimated England is horrifying and fascinating to imagine.Company of Liars is a must-read for history buffs and English Lit majors, and I can think of very few other who would not enjoy it.
tinfoilspider on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
really enjoyed this. ending is nice and open. hope there is another to follow it.
bookladymn on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
In 1348, nine travelers are brought together by what seems to be chance to flee before the black plague. While each member of the party has a story to tell, each also has a secret that is revealed one by one. Maitland does a fine job bringing to life the desperation of the people to understand and escape the plague, as well as how superstition and religious domination shaped the lives of the common people. I expected something similar to World Without End, but it really is very similar to Canterbury Tales, while I was unsurprised by all but one of the secrets, the ending was a little chilling.
karinnekarinne on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
Right off the bat I was aware that all the players in Company of Liars were lying, according to the back cover copy of my ARC. I assumed "all the players" included the narrator, and spent a portion of my reading time trying to figure out what made this narrator unreliable. Was it just the nature of his trade? In the end, most of the twists/lies were predictable and easily guessed if you were paying attention, though a few surprised me.Maitland created some interesting characters, and I enjoyed getting to know the majority of them. I liked (if that's the right word (it's not)) the way the Plague seemed almost to be a character on its own. The story kept me interested and I made my way through the novel pretty quickly, although by the time I was three-quarters done the ROCKS FALL EVERYONE DIES* feel of the story started slowing me down a bit. I was happy to get to the end and know that I wouldn't have to deal with any more unhappy endings; if the writing hadn't been as solid as it was, I probably would have stopped earlier than the end, just because I'm not in a tragedy kind of mood right now.*This is not a spoiler, rocks do not actually fall and everyone does not die.
1crazycatlady on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
I enjoyed this book. It moved along at a good pace and held my interest. I liked reading the historical as well as the individual's personal stories. I look forward to reading other works by this author and about this time period.
zibilee on LibraryThing More than 1 year ago
As the plague races across the English countryside during the summer of 1348, a company of nine unlikely travelers come together in a desperate hope to outrun it. Each carries a devastating secret that they are hiding from the others and one will bring about a swift and terrible retribution upon those who are keeping things hidden. The group includes Camelot, an itinerant peddler of holy relics who quickly becomes the leader of the company; a minstrel and his young, hot-headed apprentice; and a strange disfigured man on the run from the law. As they journey from one devastated village to the next looking for refuge, they each discover that their companions are not what they seem and they must band together, despite their reluctance, to escape the strange predator that is shadowing them and slowly decimating their group. Filled with haunting drama and unforgettable characters, Company of Liars is a dark work of fear, retribution and secrecy.I just don't know what it is about the past few months. It seems I just can't pick a really good read for myself and it's been quite frustrating. I am doubly aggrieved that this book was so disappointing because I had been so excited to read it and had saved it for myself to savor during a reading slump. Needless to say, it didn't pull me out of my slump at all. This book had great potential and a truly terrific sounding plot, but somehow things really fell short for me. I don't know whether this is because I had some unrealistic expectations for it or because it was just such a messy book. First of all, I felt that the pacing of the book was just glacial. There was too much space between action scenes and that space was not utilized in a creative way at all. There was a lot of useless meandering of the plot and character descriptions and it gave the book a very unwieldy quality that I found intensely boring. In fact, it took me forever to get through the book because my attention wandered so much, and once I put it down, I was hard pressed to find a reason to pick it up again.As I have said in other reviews, books that deal with the plague have instant appeal to me. I guess you could say that the plague is one of my specialties. I was very disappointed that this book was ostensibly about the plague but failed to deliver what I had hoped for. It seemed that the plague was only included in the story as a plot device. It was the impetus for the story, but not the story itself, which I only discovered about halfway through the book. Normally this wouldn't bother me so much, but I felt like I had been a bit snowed into expecting something that was not fully delivered to me. In fact, the plague took up such little page space that it was easy to forget it was there at all. It felt like the author pulled the plague card out of her pocket whenever the story became too heavy handed, as a way of reminding the reader just what the purpose of the travelers' journey was. I think that if the author had focused a bit more on this element of the story the book would have been more appealing to me.On the other hand, I did feel like the book had some great character portrayals and that each character was fully realized and three dimensional. The problem that I had was that despite this, I didn't really feel like I could connect with any of them, and that made it harder for me to get invested in their plights. Don't get me wrong, I did like some of them, but there was just such a strangeness to them and they were just too secretive to get a real handle on. I think that might have been an intentional construct by the author, but whatever the reason, it left a bad taste in my mouth and frustrated me. The characters were creatively crafted and were very unique, but the author didn't use that to her advantage. Instead she dulled them and softened their impact by making them so hard to connect with.Another problem that I had with the book was that the writing felt very raw. There were points where there was just to