The village of Porlock Weir appears to be under a curse. Janiveer, a woman rescued from the sea following an eclipse of the sun, has warned the villagers that plague is approaching and that only she can save them – for a price. It’s a price that nobody is willing to pay, but it’s not long before the disease reaches their small coastal community and there are some in the village who begin to wonder whether they have made the right choice. The year is 1361 and the horrors of the Great Pestilence of thirteen years before are still fresh in people’s minds.
In The Plague Charmer, Karen Maitland tells the story of Porlock Weir through the eyes of several different characters: Will, a dwarf; Matilda, devoted to her religion; Christina, who has given birth in secret at nearby Porlock Manor; and Sara, a mother trying to protect her two young sons. It’s a complex plot; each of these characters, and others, have storylines of their own, but they all come together to form a dark and magical mixture of myth, folklore and legend, love, murder, religious relics and secret cults.
There were so many things to like about The Plague Charmer. I particularly loved the setting – a little fishing village on the Exmoor coast – and learning about the lives of the people who lived there, steeped in tradition and superstition. It was interesting to watch the people of Porlock Weir deal with the arrival of the plague at a time when so little was understood about the causes of illness and death, a time when even a natural phenomenon such as an eclipse caused panic and terror. Whether or not Janiveer really possessed magical powers, it was easy to see how she was able to take advantage of the fears of the villagers to manipulate the situation to serve her own ends.
Although I can’t really say that I liked any of the characters, I did enjoy getting to know them all, especially Will, the ‘fake dwarf’. Not a natural dwarf, but one created by his master in a most horrific way, to be sold for the entertainment of rich noblemen. Due to his size and the treatment he has been forced to endure, Will looks at the world differently from the other villagers and is in the unusual position of being not quite ‘one of them’ but not quite an outsider either. He’s a great character and one of only a few in the novel who behaved with decency and humanity. I couldn’t help thinking, though, that there were too many characters and too many subplots (one in particular, involving Sara’s sons, Luke and Hob, added very little to the overall story, in my opinion). I found the constant switching between viewpoints distracting and would have preferred to have spent longer following one character before moving on to the next.
Getting back to the positives, I enjoyed reading the author’s Historical Notes at the end of the book. These provided an opportunity to learn more about the background to the story and some of the people and places that are mentioned (most of the characters are fictional, but a few, such as Sir Nigel Loring of Porlock Manor, are based on real historical figures). I was also pleased to discover that we are given the answers to the intriguing riddles found in the headings of Will’s chapters. Some of them were easy to guess, but others had left me baffled!
Finally, I should probably leave you with a word of warning. Like the other Karen Maitland books I’ve read (The Vanishing Witch and The Raven’s Head), this is a very dark story and can be quite gruesome at times; you need to be prepared for bad things happening to the people of Porlock Weir, and that includes the children. It’s not a book for the faint-hearted, but it’s certainly a fascinating and atmospheric one.
Thanks to Headline for providing a copy of this book for review.