Book Review: The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland, plus Q&A with the author
When Karen Maitland’s new novel The Raven’s Head came up for review on Lovereading, I was ecstatic. I simply had to have it.
I adore Maitland’s work. Her books are dark, gritty, and utterly absorbing. I always read her historical notes, finding them fascinating, and extremely informative. Maitland is an utterly brilliant storyteller. Her novels are always full of dark, creepy settings, and captivating characters. The Raven’s Head is no different.
The Raven’s Head introduces us to several interesting characters, from different walks of life, who come together under the roof of one man – Lord Sylvain. Vincent, an apprentice librarian from France, flees the country after angering his master, who plots to have him killed. In his possession is a beautiful raven’s head, which refuses to be sold, as it seeks out its true master.
Gisa, a young woman who lives and works in her uncle’s apothecary shop, is soon recruited by Lord Sylvain, for her knowledge of herbs and her innocence. Wilky, a small boy who was offered up by his father as payment for a debt, is taken by the menacing White Canons, and becomes Regulus, the little king. He soon learns a life of hardship and fear.
All three will be useful to Sylvain and the White Canons, as they endeavour to use the power of alchemy to fulfil their wildest dreams.
A wonderful historical fiction, full of the supernatural and intrigue, The Raven’s Head is yet another triumph for Maitland.
I took the opportunity to ask Maitland a few questions about The Raven’s Head.
As mentioned in a previous interview, Maitland usually looks at contemporary issues, and tries to find a historical counterpart to base her stories on. I wanted to know which issues inspired The Raven’s Head.
There are two current issues. Today, in 2015, we are all aware of the terrible atrocities that are being committed by members of different religious groups in the name of their God. Throughout the centuries, greed, ambition and hatred have driven individuals and groups to murder, but when people believe they are acting as instruments of God, it seems to makes them much more ruthless and cruel. Since the dawn of writing, men have been able to twist the meaning of any holy text to justify their actions in their quest for absolute power. In THE RAVEN’S HEAD, two men each have different interpretations of the same book. Each is convinced he alone knows God’s mind. Such men are always exceeding dangerous.
The story of THE RAVEN’S HEAD revolves around the mysterious art of medieval alchemy which, at its heart, was the search for never-ending life. Today, medical researchers and scientists are still searching for the exactly the same thing as those medieval alchemists – how to stop people dying; how to prolong life and how to resurrect the dead, though today we try to do it through storing eggs and sperm; through cryonics; or by using the DNA to create clones. While scientists now believe that the answer to prolonging life and preventing death could lie in altering the genetic code of human cells, the alchemists believed that by altering the balance of elements in the body they could prevent death. Centuries apart we are still looking for that magic alchemist’s stone.
But THE RAVEN’S HEAD has its lighter moments too. The young medieval hero of the novel is always trying to think of ways to get rich that don’t involve actual work and like many of us, he is dreaming of the medieval equivalent of today’s lottery win.
Maitland’s books are always incredibly well-researched, with extensive historical notes at the end. I wanted to know how she goes about her research.
Finding the right setting is always the starting point for the research. I was walking along a road in the Norfolk fens one night when I glimpsed the pale ruins of Langley Abbey rising out of the mist. It was so eerie that I knew I’d found the setting for THE RAVEN’S HEAD. I began by reading the records of past archaeological excavations carried out on the site and as well as the medieval ecclesiastical records of the abbey itself, including the reports on its finances written by Thomas Cromwell’s men during the reformation.
The ecclesiastical records revealed that the white canons at Langley Abbey were accused of all kinds of sins and throughout the Middle Ages new abbots were repeatedly appointed to try to discipline them, but on most occasions, it seems, the abbots appeared to be corrupted by Langley and had to be replaced.
For the alchemy aspect of the novel, she read as many texts written by medieval alchemists as she could find.
To protect themselves and their knowledge, the alchemists recorded their experiments in a coded language using elaborate symbols, often in the form of pictures. As I pored over the strange and violent images in the manuscripts – pictures of hermaphrodite sovereigns descending into tombs and boys being eaten by their fathers – the challenge for me was to try to understand how the medieval mind might have interpreted these images.
Maitland is drawn to the Dark Ages for many reasons.
It is an age on the cusp between the ancient and the modern world. An age of omens and magic on the one hand, yet if you had walked into medieval alchemist laboratory, you would instantly recognise apparatus and techniques that are still used in modern science labs today. I am constantly surprised to discover what they knew in Middle Ages such how to use anaesthetic and antiseptics and how to drill and fill teeth.
It was an age of rapid change and of great contrast in the way people lived. While some people rarely left their villages, others traded right across the world, bringing goods, and exotic animals, into England from India, Africa and Siberia. The English even exported herrings as far as the Middle East. This variety and colour gives any novelist enormous scope. I love to delve into the lives of groups of people pushed into the margins of society, those who lurk forgotten in the dark corners of history. The Middle Ages is full of such people whose stories have never really been heard.
A woman after my own heart, Maitland loves reading novels set in the murky depths of Victorian life.
But that’s rather a crowded field for writers. So for now I am happy to stay in the medieval world. It is such a broad span of history with so many little-known aspects to write about, but if I was going to explore another era, I’d probably want to go back rather than forward, maybe to Saxon times or Viking times, or perhaps delve into much earlier civilisations in Europe.
In August 2015, Maitland will be one of the Arvon tutors on the Historical Fiction residential course for writers, working together with the brilliant historical novelist M.C. Scott, of whom Maitland is a huge fan.
I am really excited about sharing time with the students on the course and reading their writing. I’ll also be leading a one-day ‘Historical Crime and Thriller’ writing workshop in September in Norwich as part of the Norwich Crime Writing Weekend. So it seems to be a year when I will be helping new historical novel writers to blossom, which is fantastic.
As for her next novel, Maitland is hard at work on a new one, but it is not yet at a stage where she can talk about it to anyone without destroying the magic of the writing process.
So, like the medieval alchemists, I am locked away in my own laboratory of secrets, mixing my potions and muttering to myself.
Author photo © John C. Gibson