Posts Tagged ‘Sara’

The-Plague-Charmer

As the image above shows, this book is another historical fiction novel by the author of Company of Liars, which I read and enjoyed a while ago. It wasn’t a great book but it was an enjoyable enough read, earning a decent four star review here. I was expecting something similarly entertaining and comfortable reading. Nothing too challenging.

And that is what this book offers.

Unlike Liars, which roams across England, The Plague Charmer takes place in a single village of Porlock Weir in Exmoor and the overseeing castle of Porlock Manor in 1361. A village and manor under threat from the onset of the plague and the change in focus to that isolated, tethered, claustrophobic atmosphere was an effective change. The horror of Sara and her family, locked up in their cottage to see whether any had contracted the plague – a genuinely horrific and, I am sure, historically accurate account – was a microcosm of the whole country.

Unfortunately, unlike Liars, it eschews the single narrative voice in favour of leaping – sometimes wildly and unpredictably – between a range of different narrators, sometimes only touching on one narrator for a couple of pages before launching into a  different point of view. We see multiple narrators: Sara, the wife whose family are ravaged by the plague and who watches her husband die and her sons flee; Luke, her son; Will, the dwarf cast out from the Manor and an outcast from the village – a character who owes a debt to George R. R. Martin’s Tyrion Lannister; Matilda, the devout, pious hypocrite; Lady Pavia, a dowager widow fleeing the plague in the Manor; Lady Christina, a disgraced young bride with a son born – somewhat inconveniently – less than nine months after her marriage. The novel, similarly, bounces between different ideas: the historical horrors of the plague; the supernatural threat of Janiveer, the mysterious woman who was rescued from the sea on the day of the eclipse in the opening chapters; the threat of religious extremism and cult.

Altogether, I was underwhelmed by the novel. None of the characters were particularly likeable and the writing was neither crafted nor subtle. Maitland never gives the reader time to settle into the voice of one character before changing again and again; and whole tracts of the novel – Luke and Hob’s story for example – were simply rather tedious and dull and not compensated for by the more tightly written final section.

Maitland does seem very historically convincing in the small details – the idea behind the character Will, the artificial dwarf, is an abhorrent concept, the comprachicos of Victor Hugo’ The Man Who Laughs – but was far less successful in this book than in the earlier Liars.

 

It’s a strange thing with books. You can start one – particularly a lengthy one like this – and things get in the way of you finishing it. That’s not the strange thing. That – I imagine – is familiar. Maybe you put it down because work has become hectic or your baby is born and you think I’ll come back to it in a couple of days but you end up never quite having the time. That happened with me and The Twelve, the second in Cronin’s The Passage trilogy. But the strange thing that I mentioned at the beginning if this paragraph is that, however long I leave a book for, once I’ve picked it up again, it’s all just there! No re-reading needed. It’s as if I open a door and step back into their world without a pause. Like Narnia. So picking up The Twelve again, I stepped back through into Cronin’s world.

And it is a dark and twisted world: humanity has been almost wiped out by the vampiric virals from The Passage (for my review of which, see here) and little pockets are all that is left. In The Passage, those pockets were struggling to survive; in The Twelve, they’re starting to fight back and this gives the sequel a very different feel to the original. Our main characters have become militarised. It is, perhaps, analogous to the different tone of Ridley Scott’s Alien and James Cameron’s Aliens. For me, personally, I was significantly more engaged by the characters in the first book: their relations were more complex, more human and more credible.

Amy Harper Bellafonte – The Girl From Nowhere – injected with the virus which produced the vampires as a child but somehow retaining her humanity – a single character connecting the time before and the time after – was such a massively evocative and engaging character in The Passage that I felt almost cheated by her demotion in this sequel. She became almost a secondary character until the finale.

Her role is almost taken by Lawrence Grey, the janitor who was taken by Zero when he escaped; and by Anthony Carter, the one innocent man among the twelve convicts who were originally infected. We see Grey in the aftermath of the Twelve’s escape forming a bond with Lila Kyle – Brad Wolgast’s mentally unstable estranged wife – but eventually captured by Horace Guilder. The relationship between Grey and Kyle was quite affecting as Kyle retreats from the horrors around her into a fantasy world. Both characters were engagingly vulnerable but the extensive and exhaustive prolongation of her fantasy did start to become tedious.

What I did like was the reversal of the antagonists: the eponymous twelve themselves were fairly distant and abstract with, literally, a walk-on part. The real antagonist was Horace Guilder: capturing Grey and assuming the role of Lila Kyle’s husband, he realises that Grey’s blood can keep him alive. Grey is, therefore, imprisoned and farmed for his blood for a century.

Guilder becomes a collaborator with the virals – thanks to Lila’s warped sense of reality, his ability to manipulate her and her ability to control the virals – and founder of The Homeland. The Homeland is a city-state run on a quasi-religious totalitarian basis, capturing free humans to use as slave labour in concentration camp conditions. The true horrors are committed here by humans against humans: maltreatment, a feedlot of virals to feed dissidents and insurgents to (taking the place of the gas chambers), torture, rape and the farming of bodily fluids from men, women and children. Cronin did succeed in creating an intriguing antagonist in Guilder: he is simultaneously demonic and ridiculous; totalitarian and impotent; a true grotesque.

In all, this book felt like a bridge between the first and last books on the trilogy. It almost felt as if the mechanics of the virals – that each of the Twelve governed a massive pod of virals who they had turned and who could be destroyed en masseby killing the appropriate member of the Twelve who had sired them – was too cumbersome. It would have needed perhaps one book for each of the Twelve and become really repetitive! So Cronin used this book to simultaneously build up Zero as the ultimate antagonist and dispatch the other Twelve. I would be interested to know whether the original plan was for three of twelve books….

The prose of The Twelve also seemed to me more prosaic, less varied and less lyrical than The Passage.

Was this a good novel? Yes, of course it was! The world and the characters in particular are engaging and interesting. I find the religious parallels at best a tad contrived and occasionally uncomfortable. And yes I am looking forward to a showdown between Lish, Amy (and perhaps Carter) with Zero – previously known as Tim Fanning and the first to be infected in the wilds of Bolivia in The Passage.

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