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Review: Company of Liars, Karen Maitland

Nine travelers find themselves banding together, seeking escape from the Black Death that has just arrived in England for the first time.  These nine are not just travelers; they have stories to tell and secrets to hide.  As they increasingly lie to one another while telling their stories, it becomes clear that what’s after them is not the plague, but their own pasts.  Unfortunately for these nine wanderers, the past is not something so easily avoided.

I wanted to like this book more than I think I ended up liking it. I’ve had it for a couple years, and reading it definitely revealed to me why I was waiting; it’s very dark.  It was certainly gripping at times, especially in the beginning.  I enjoyed how each traveler had a story; I knew they were all lying about some aspect of their story and at first it wasn’t easy to figure out what was really going on.  As the story progressed, however, the lies become fairly obvious and the plot starts to unravel a bit.  Even I, who never puts any effort at all into guessing the outcome of a book, found myself predicting what was going to happen.

The story is just very grim and occasionally hard to take.  This is a book set during the Black Death about a bunch of liars, so I suppose this could be expected, but the problem is that the book is also quite long.  Maitland’s writing is very good and she’s quite a storyteller, but there’s only so much Black Death and murders anyone can actually take.  As a result, the book felt like it started to drag, particularly towards the end.  I could mainly see what was going to happen and everything was quite dark and grim – after a few days of reading one book, I felt like I needed a break before it was even over.

That said, there is also much to enjoy with this one.  In particular, I loved the details that Maitland included, and I certainly felt I got a sense of how the Black Death demolished the countryside, turned people against one another, and brought out the worst in some and the best in others.  Other books also do this well, and it’s something that, morbid as it is, I am very interested in.  Doomsday Book by Connie Willis is also an excellent choice if you share my peculiar fascination with the plague and how people reacted to it.  I also liked the main character here, who has plenty of secrets to share over the course of the book.  I figured out the secret, but I liked watching him figure out the other characters’ secrets as the story moved along.

All in all, I expect I’d have liked Company of Liars better if it was shorter, with a tighter plot, rather than the rambling that seems to match how the company traveled.  Still, I think Maitland has talent, and of course the Middle Ages always appeal to me, so I’m looking forward to picking up future books by her.

I am an Amazon Associate. I purchased this book.

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12 comments to Review: Company of Liars, Karen Maitland

  • Eva

    I gave The Owl Killers (her first novel) a go last year, but after 60 pages I found I had no interest in continuing. Since it’s a bit of a chunkster, I decided to just abandon it rather than forcing myself through so many pages! It’s frustrating, because in theory I should have loved The Owl Killers too.
    Eva´s last post …Sunday Salon- the ‘Beginning of the End’ Post

  • Quite a few of the reviews I’ve read agree with yours in particular the criticisms. I think the story is a good one and I think that period of history is fascinating and yet I know little about it. If I see it going cheap somewhere I’ll pick it up.
    Jessica´s last post …A Spell of Winter by Helen Dunmore

  • Well, I have to say that when I saw that cover, I was immediately drawn to the book, so I’m disappointed to see that you didn’t just love it. I still think I’d like to give it a try one day.

  • I had basically the same reaction you did. Too much loose plotting and secrets that were too easy to guess. And, once I found out what all the secrets were, I felt there were some that were not believable given the context ot the times. It was the 14th century afterall.
    cbjames´s last post …Butchers Crossing by John Williams

  • Did you really guess the narrator’s secret? I didn’t get that one until right at the end – smart you. I think you’re right, it could easily have been shorter without losing anything, but I loved the dark atmosphere so much.
    Jodie´s last post …Excepto-girls Or Great Shes Making Up Words Now

  • Nice honest review. And well, I might just skip it
    blodeuedd´s last post …Review- Mini Shopaholic – Sophie Kinsella

  • I really disliked this book and felt that it was overlong and had a lot of jarring aspects that I felt didn’t work well together. I had been hoping that the plague aspect of the story would take the forefront, and was disappointed when that was not the case. It sounds like you came across some of these issues as well.
    zibilee´s last post …The Doctor and the Diva by Adrienne McDonnell — 432 pgs

  • I just loved Doomsday Book — so I’m curious about this one. The cover is quite striking, too.
    Audra´s last post …What are you reading- Nov 22

  • Sounds like this book could have been shorter if it was a lot of the same stuff. I found a copy in the free book section in the train station awhile back. It still sounds worth reading at some point.
    Anna´s last post …Mailbox Monday — November 22

  • A couple of years ago I was desperate to read this book but it didn’t happen, and then it kind of fell of my radar and now I don’t seem to be all that fussed about it! Maybe one day. Then again, maybe not.
    Marg´s last post …Drop Bears again

  • Jade

    When I saw you’d reviewed this I had to comment – I do really like Karen Maitland. I agree with most of your criticisms about this one, though: from an early stage the ending felt grimly inevitable. I also found some of the ‘lies’ offered by a few of the characters to be just too surreal. The darkness of it was something I actually rather enjoyed, but that’s just me, and of course once you know where the story is going it becomes a bit depressing.

    The basis for my Maitland-love is mostly ‘The Owl Killers’. I found the story to be far more immersive and easier to get into, helped by the fact that there are several POV characters with a range of backgrounds and motivations; it is quite dark and disturbing again but I think more subtly so, and the added suspense and tension just made it impossible for me to put it down. From a historian’s perspective, it was easier to buy, too, and that always helps!

  • Soot. I have been harboring very high hopes for this one. Now after your review and some of the comments, I see I’d better set my expectations just a bit lower. I still plan to give it a go. Maybe in audio…
    Beth F´s last post …Thankfully Reading Weekend- Getting Started