Company Of Liars: A Novel Of The Plague – Karen Maitland
The year is 1348. The Black Plague grips the country. In a world ruled by faith and fear, nine desperate strangers, brought together by chance, attempt to outrun the certain death that is running inexorably toward them.
Each member of this motley company has a story to tell. From Camelot, the relic-seller who will become the group's leader; to Cygnus, the one-armed storyteller; from the strange child called Narigorn; to a painter and his pregnant wife; each has a secret. None are what they seem. And one among them conceals the darkest secret of all—propelling these liars to a destiny they never saw coming.
Review: This book is advertised as a reinterpretation of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, which made me terrified to read it. I had The Canterbury Tales forced upon me in high school English class. It was awful. Mostly because I had no freakin’ clue what was happening in that book. The Canterbury Tales is not an easy book to read, and I have zero desire to ever attempt it again. That’s why Company of Liars sat on my shelf for months before I worked up the courage to read it.
Luckily, Company of Liars is written in Modern English, so it’s already miles ahead of The Canterbury Tales in the readability department. It follows nine travelers who are walking north to avoid catching the plague. Each of them is hiding something about their past. As they travel, secrets are uncovered, stories are told, rivalries are formed, and murder is committed.
“There was a new king and his name was pestilence. And he had created a new law—thou shalt do anything to survive.” – Company of Liars
I’m definitely not an expert on 1300s England, but the setting in this novel seems well-researched and realistic to me. The church controlled everything during this time, and the characters have to guard their secrets to keep from being killed by the church. Some of the characters have committed crimes against religion. Others are involved in activities that go against the church’s beliefs. There is a sense of danger throughout the entire novel. If the characters aren’t killed by the plague, they may be executed for their crimes.
The characters are where this book shines. They’re all very unique. The most fun part of the story is trying to figure out each character’s secret before the narrator does. Some of the secrets are obvious. Others are nearly impossible to guess. You have to listen very carefully to the characters’ stories and try to put the pieces together. In some cases, one misplaced word can give a secret away.
“You've heard tales of beauty and the beast. How a fair maid falls in love with a monster and sees the beauty of his soul beneath the hideous visage. But you've never heard the tale of the handsome man falling for the monstrous woman and finding joy in her love, because it doesn't happen, not even in a story-teller's tale.” – Company of Liars
My main problem with this book is that it’s very, very long. My copy is 460+ pages, and there are a lot of words crammed onto each page. For me, there isn’t enough tension in the plot to get me through that many pages. The characters are mostly traveling aimlessly. Their only goal is to avoid plague villages. The tension comes from the secrets that the characters are keeping. Most of the secrets are pretty obvious. I even correctly guessed who was behind the mysterious murders/suicides.
Since the book is slow and predictable, I never felt hugely motivated to pick it up. I love the setting, and I wanted to know the narrator’s secret. That’s what kept me reading. I can understand why some reviewers have struggled to get through this beast.
I also wonder about the narrator’s reactions to learning the other characters’ secrets. He barely reacts to most of them. Learning the secrets doesn’t change how he feels about his traveling companions. I guess that makes sense because he’s hiding his own secrets. He has no right to judge. But, wouldn’t he judge at least a little? He’s spent his life in places where religion rules everything. Wouldn’t he have some sort of opinion about people committing crimes against the church?
“[T]he flames of a fire are not made less painful by the knowledge that others are burning with you.” – Company of Liars
I have mixed feelings about this book. I liked it enough to finish it. The characters and setting held my attention. However, when I finished it, I mostly felt disappointed. I wish it had been less predictable. I’m still searching for really awesome books set during historical plagues. (Recommendations, please?)