The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of magic and alchemy, murder and blackmail, set in the early thirteenth century. Earlier this year I read my first Karen Maitland novel, The Vanishing Witch, and loved the combination of history, mystery and the supernatural. This book includes the same elements but the supernatural one is particularly strong, making this a darker and more atmospheric read.

The Ravens Head The story revolves around three young people who are drawn into an alchemist’s search for power. Beginning in France in 1224, we meet seventeen-year-old Vincent, apprentice to a scribe in the service of Philippe, the Comte de Lingones. Bored with life in Philippe’s chateau, Vincent tries to blackmail the Comte, but when his attempt fails he finds himself on the run in possession of a silver raven’s head which seems to have a mind of its own.

In England, meanwhile, a young woman called Gisa is working as an assistant to her uncle, an apothecary, when she comes to the attention of the sinister Lord Sylvain who enlists her help with his secret experiments. Nearby, a group of white-robed priests known as the White Canons are running a small and exclusive school for young boys. One of these boys is five-year-old Wilky, taken from his parents as payment of a debt, and renamed Regulus. When Wilky’s friends start disappearing from their beds in the middle of the night never to return, the boys begin to wonder what is really going on.

I loved the first half of this book and was intrigued by the circumstances of each of our three main characters. I found Vincent’s story particularly gripping, possibly because his chapters were narrated in the first person and this made it easier for me to connect with him. The other two storylines were written in third person present tense and although I’m not really sure why this was necessary, it did help to distinguish Gisa’s and Wilky’s sections from Vincent’s. I was curious to see how the story would develop for each character and how their separate threads of the novel would eventually be woven together.

The book failed to hold my interest right to the end, unfortunately. Somewhere in the second half, I thought the plot started to lose its way and descend into a string of action sequences, alchemical experiments and gruesome secret rituals. I’m sure other readers will enjoy all of this more than I did; I do like historical fiction with a touch of the supernatural, but I prefer it to be more subtle than it is here. After so much build-up and so much care taken in setting the scene and introducing the characters, I was left slightly disappointed at the end.

This is a wonderfully atmospheric and eerie novel, though. The parts of the story told from Wilky’s perspective are particularly effective in that respect – seen through the eyes of a little boy who has no idea what is happening, the world of the White Canons is both bewildering and terrifying. The Gisa and Vincent storylines also have undercurrents of darkness and danger – and Lord Sylvain is a great villain!

Having now read Karen Maitland’s two most recent novels I’m looking forward to going back and reading her earlier ones.

I received a copy of this book for review from NetGalley.

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14 thoughts on “The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

  1. jessicabookworm says:

    I’m sorry to hear this didn’t quite live up to your expectations. I also have a copy of this which I hope to read soon. Hopefully the heavier supernatural element won’t be problem for me, as it is another genre I love. I hope you enjoy your journey back through Maitland’s older work.

  2. Lark says:

    It’s a great premise; I’m sorry the ending wasn’t as good as the beginning. But I’m keeping Maitland on my list of authors to try. I like the mix of historical and supernatural fiction when it’s done well.

    • Helen says:

      I think she’s definitely worth trying. I didn’t dislike this one – there was just too much focus on black magic and alchemy for my taste.

  3. Margaret @ BooksPlease says:

    I agree that it’s an eerie book – and an unsettling one too. I enjoyed the historical setting but it took me right to the edge of my comfort zone as far as reading horrific detail goes. There were parts that nearly made me stop reading and yet I felt compelled to read on and I had to finish it.

    • Helen says:

      I had the opposite problem with this book – I was drawn in immediately but lost interest in the middle. I’m looking forward to trying her earlier books as they sound more appealing to me.

  4. bookgeeking says:

    I haven’t read this yet but I do have it. I have read three of her other books and they are all great. I am sorry you didn’t enjoy this one us much, but don’t give up on the author, she is really good. 🙂 The most recent one I have read by her is The Gallows Curse and it was probably the best one I have read by her.

  5. Alex says:

    Every time there is a new Maitland published I look at it and think, “shall I?”. But I fell foul of ‘Company of Liars’, which was far to brutal for my tastes. From what you say this is possibly more so and not such a good story to boot. Perhaps this isn’t the one, either.

    • Helen says:

      If you don’t like too much brutality in novels I probably wouldn’t recommend reading this one. Maybe her previous book, The Vanishing Witch, would be a better choice for you.

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