The Raven’s Head | Karen Maitland | 2015 | Headline | 480p | Review copy | Buy the book
Vincent was once an English pauper but now he lives high in a great French lord’s tower, trapped by poverty to be a scribe apprentice, dreaming forlornly of the lord’s beautiful daughter, resigned to endless drudgery and squalour. And then there comes his chance. A secret comes into Vincent’s possession, one that would bring his mighty lord down so low he would never recover. Vincent threatens him and, in response, the lord promises him rich rewards and entrusts him with a task. Vincent is told to deliver a silver raven’s head but Vincent’s acceptance is his downfall. His attempts to sell the raven’s head meet with failure and it is almost as if it is the raven’s head itself that guides Vincent on, back to England, and the dark manor of Lord Sylvain, a renowned and feared alchemist.
Wilky is a young child snatched from his family as payment for a debt and sent to live in the confines of a monastery where nothing good can breathe. Wilky is renamed Regulus and his only comfort comes from the fellowship of the other boys. As the boy grows it becomes ever clearer to him, as hope dies, that there can be only dark purposes for his imprisonment.
Gisa is a young woman, barely more than a child, who works with her uncle, an apothecary. She attracts the attention of Lord Sylvain and watches in horror as her aunt and uncle hand her over to help him with his experiments behind those big, forbidding walls.
The Raven’s Head is a bewitching novel indeed. It is steeped in ancient alchemy, its enigmatic laws giving name to each of the chapters, while the supernatural plays around its edges. Most of all, though, it is a deeply atmospheric story of medieval life, set in the 1220s. The three young people – Vincent, Wilky and Gisa – are victims (albeit, in Vincent’s case, a feisty one) of this superstitious, greedy and feudal world, of the aristocracy, of the church, and if they are to escape this trap they can rely only on themselves. Parenthood is nothing to trust, money and food are things to steal or cheat for, and those who should protect are the most dangerous. This is medieval society at its very bottom, in all its stink and mess, preyed on by those so much nearer the top.
The narrative is split three ways in a very interesting way. Vincent tells us his story in the first person past tense. It is his account that holds the novel together, introducing us to its major themes, taking us to its richly visualised locations. The tales of Wilky and Gisa by contrast are told in the third person present tense. This makes their stories much more immediate, frightening and dangerous. We do not know if they will survive, their experiences are lived in the moment. In Karen Maitland’s skillful hands, this mix of tenses and narratives works very effectively indeed. It contributes to the novel’s mixed mood – the physical reality of this harsh existence contrasts with the psychological horror of the unknown. But at the heart of the novel, though, is Lord Sylvain, truly a frightening figure, brilliantly combining within him medieval scientific hunger with melodramatic villain. As for the monks – they haunt these pages and poor Wilky’s terror is unforgettable.
The Raven’s Head is a richly rewarding read and it is beautifully written by one of today’s great masters of medieval historical fiction. Karen Maitland’s prose is colourful, vivid and earthy. She captures the mood of people often overlooked in history who would have seen the world in a very different way from the one we might imagine. This is a place in which demons and devils can walk alongside angels while death is a frequent visitor and a mother’s love can be absent entirely. I enjoyed all of the narratives but I was completely captivated by young Wilky. It is a wonderful portrait.
This is a frightening novel in places, it is exuberant and humorous when the characters demand it and it is also at times very sad indeed. It is a place with a stench – there are so many smells in this novel. It is also a pageturner. Events are soon out of control for our three young people and the excitement builds as the pages fly by. After reading the superb The Vanishing Witch last year, I was very excited to see what Karen Maitland would come up with next. I’m not a bit surprised that The Raven’s Head is every bit as good.
The Vanishing Witch