Review: The Raven’s Head, Karen Maitland

 Karen Maitland is a very successful writer of historical fiction and the lovely History Girls blog but unlike certain other writers (*cough* Philippa Gregory *cough*) she tends to veer away from the frothy costume drama style of story in favour of the grubby and the gritty.  The only previous novel of hers which I had read was A Company of Liars which left me feeling unreasonably irritated and without really thinking about it, I have deliberately avoided her work ever since.  Still, fate in the form of an advance review copy has intervened and so I found myself reading her forth-coming novel The Raven’s Head.  Ho hum.
This is one of those books about which I have few strong feelings.  Having finished it over the weekend, I realise that the plot is already fast fading from my memory which is a never a good sign. I recognise though that Maitland was never setting out to write high-brow historical fiction – again to make a contrast with someone we shall call Gillipa Phregory, she does not make breathless appearances on historical documentaries during which she masquerades as an expert.  Karen Maitland is only trying to write a stonking great yarn.  This is very much written in the same spirit as Reign, which is an American television series centring around the life of Mary Queen of Scots.  Except it’s totally not about Mary Queen of Scots because it’s basically Gossip Girl but with a bit of hocus pocus and pretty costumes.  Perhaps a better comparison would be to the low-budget BBC costume dramas that sometimes get shown on Saturday evenings – Robin Hood or Merlin.  The story is more important than the historical context.  Fine.  Ok.  But.
It all just feels a bit like a trip to the Jorvik centre.  If you’ve never been to the Jorvik centre, first of all you deserve my condolences but secondly, clearly you did not grow up in Yorkshire.  The Jorvik centre is a Viking experience exhibition where you ride in a little rollercoaster-style seat and experience the sights and smells of Viking York.  It was made in the 1990s and doesn’t really seem to have been updated but as far as I know it is still going strong.  My primary school took us three times and I’ve been with my family too.  My point is that Raven’s Head and the Jorvik centre both play up the smells and the gross factor with all the potions and spells and blood and gore – while I have mentioned my issues with costume dramas which focus too much on the flowery romance, making everything too miserable is a bit of a drag too.  I felt the same way about Company of Liars; it’s all a bit of a downer.
Maitland announces proudly at the beginning of the novel that all of the epigraphs are taken from real medieval sources but while this worked for Succession, here it feels tacked-on.  The baroque rituals within the abbey also seem over-played – I never cared for stories about the depravity of Elizabeth of Bathary and this is very much playing for the same kind of shock value.  I keep finding other works that The Raven’s Head reminds me of which does rather imply a certain lack of originality – even its Big Reveal about what has really been going on felt borrowed from The Abominable Dr Phibes.  There were no strong characters in this novel, the finale felt unresolved but I was just glad to be finished.  I can see how this might be a mildly entertaining book to read on a beach or by a pool and you are looking for something to while away an afternoon with but sadly for me it held little appeal.
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The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland
Published by Headline on March 12th 2015
Genres: Fiction, General, Grotesque, Historical
Pages: 480
ISBN: 1472215060

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