Tuesday, March 1, 2011

Review of Karen Maitland's THE OWL KILLERS

Karen Maitland's THE OWL KILLERS is a compelling and often unsettling exploration of the clash between the pagan undercurrents in medieval England and the growing strength of the Christian faith. Set in a backwater town plagued by a despotic overlord and group of masked men who call themselves the Owl Masters —dedicated to preserving their power at any costs by exacting tribute from the downtrodden villagers and enacting terrifying nightly rites— the novel follows a number of characters from their points of view, each of whom has his or her reasons for liking or resenting a group of foreign women who have come to settle outside in the village.

Part of a medieval phenomenon called a beguinage, these woman hail from different sections of society, united in their commitment to an ascetic lifestyle that includes caring for the less fortunate. However, not all is as it seems under the hard-working, disciplined exterior of the beguinage and it is precisely here where Ms Maitland deftly weaves the strands of discord, suspicion, resentment, and eventual fear that thrust the women into the heart of a horrific plot hatched by the Owl Masters.

The characters are finely wrought and include a vengeful priest with a secret; an ancient cunning woman who lives like a wild thing on the hill; her feral granddaughter; and various women of the beguinage, including the stalwart leader, Servant Martha, and an unbalanced acolyte, Beatrice. The arrival of the manor lord’s disgraced daughter, who has witnessed a terrifying rite in the forest where a demon allegedly was unleashed, sets off a chain of events that will ensnare each of these characters in a deadly struggle to preserve his or her way of life— a struggle that foreshadows the crumbling of the foundations of a much older, matriarchal system of belief under the onslaught of a virile and aggressive Church. While the changing viewpoints within Ms Maitland’s narrative may prove confounding to some readers, those who persist will find unexpected moments of transcendent beauty, as Ms Maitland excels in depicting not only the people of her savage, rarely explored world but also the shifting landscape which they inhabit.

From a catastrophic flood to the beatific sufferings of a starving anchorite to a heart-stopping chase through the forest as a winged beast flies overhead, THE OWL KILLERS is not for the faint of heart, evoking a medieval vision that offers stark contrast to our often overly-romantic imaginings. Ms Maitland's latest novel, THE GALLOW'S CURSE will be released this month. For more about her and her work, visit

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