The Short Take:
Talk about your dark ages: It doesn’t get much darker than the decaying town of Ulewic in 1321 England. Maitland knows how to completely immerse you in another time and place. This time she’s created a beaten-down village that’s a smoldering mix of despair, suspicion, superstition, and just plain evil. Be glad you’re only visiting.
I enjoyed this brooding novel, but it’s not for everyone. It is dark. Very dark. Maitland has already demonstrated her mastery of mood-setting description (check out my review of her Company of Liars on 12/27/08). This time she also carefully metes out insights into the personalities of the main characters in her extensive cast of players. There are no heroes and villains here, just people with all their flaws. Okay, there are a couple of really, really bad villains, too.
What grabbed me most was the multi-faceted struggle as pagan ways, cultural superstitions, and the Church repeatedly clashed as well as over-lapped. And that dynamic was already in place before a group of foreign women set up a beguinage outside of town.
What’s a beguinage, you say? It was new to me, too. Think of it as half way between a nunnery and a women’s liberation stronghold. The beguines were all women, living together and pursuing their livelihoods without aid from men. While devout, they were outside the Church structure. Women could study, work, pray, but had the option to leave at any time.
Plop a group of self-contained, independent women like that into this place….. yikes!
But it’s this book’s examination of the era’s religious practices, the roles of women, and the complete power of powerful Lords that intrigues and keeps one turning page after page.
A Little Plot:
Crops fail and disease decimates livestock. Both the Manor Lord and the Church constantly have their greedy hands out, squeezing the very life out of the villagers. A fear-mongering local cult, the Owl Masters, is sure all these problems and more arise from abandoning the pagan ways of old. And they don’t care for those foreign ladies, either.
In that respect, Church, villagers, the Manor, and the Owl Masters are united. Suspicions and fears are fired in Ulewic even as the beguines reach out with food and help for the sick.
Oh, and did I mention that the Lord’s daughter was disowned and sent to the beguinage after she was raped?
If you want to more know more about Maitland, visit her website by clicking here.