Back in the Middle Ages where she belongs, after the crushing disappointment that was The Falcons of Fire and Ice, Karen Maitland has managed with her sixth book to take the gothic darkness she is famed for and harness it, creating both chilling tension and a gripping structure. This is not a perfect historical fiction book, but it is spooky and exciting and a damn good read. Fans of The Owl Killers rejoice again; she’s back.
Set during the year of the Peasant’s Revolt, The Vanishing Witch tells the story of two Lincoln families; the foolish pompous merchant Robert and his ailing wife and miserable children, and the loving but impoverished family of Gunther the boatman. Narrated in part by one of Lincoln’s many ghosts, and including fascinating superstitions surrounding witches and medicine, this is a story of lust and vengeance, of what poor, desperate people will do when they are pushed too far by their masters, and of greed.
When beautiful, mysterious Widow Catlin turns up at Robert’s door asking for financial advice, her strange family seep into the lives of all the people of Lincoln. Is she a witch? Or just a dangerous woman? Trust and loyalty are two of the major themes of the novel. It follows several increasingly unreliable narrators through a twisty tale, although the twists to be honest aren’t that twisty, but they are very satisfying all the same.
There are some real moments of horror and tension throughout the book, but what I really loved about it was the way is described how the a Revolt in the summer of 1381 came about. By showing how the ridiculous poll taxes imposed on ordinary families crushed the spirit of those who worked so damned hard for what little they had, Maitland has made the people of the Revolt human. In the press blurb that came with my copy, Maitland talks about how she was inspired by the Riots of 2011 (remember them?) and how the reasons for the looting and vandalism that swept the nation seemed to her to be similar to the ones behind the Revolt. The Revolt was crushed, and horribly so, in a way that would never happen now, in this country at least (and how very very lucky we are for that). In this book I was almost praying for Maitland to spare some characters, who you really felt a deep emotional attachment to.
The characters in this book are not all perfect, nor is the plot which takes a while to get going and suffers for a uneccessarly epilogue, which in all honestly I wouldn’t bother reading. But it is worth it, she has made the problem and perils of the 14th century relevant and interesting. There really aren’t enough novels starring ordinary people set in the Middle Ages and for that reason alone I highly recommend this book.