One thing that the Historical Novel Society Conference got right this year was the Goody Bags.
Yes, there was no special branded bag to show off – someone said there had been a delay, so we had plain cotton bags, mine was purple. It contained the usual collection of advertising leaflets, specially printed first chapters/short stories, book marks and cards, a bottle of water and a Tunnock’s Caramel Wafer.
It also contained a book; a full length 500+ page book and what is more, it was a book I wanted to read! A proof copy of Karen Maitland’s latest novel, A Gathering of Ghosts. When I got home, I ignored all the editing I planned to do and sat down to enjoy it. Since it is published today, 6th September, and I haven’t posted a review here for a while, I decided to write one. (The editing can wait a bit longer!)
Karen’s books are different from anything written by anyone else. They are usually set in a specific place, a long way away in time and place, away from the big picture of historical fiction, but at a local level they say everything about what is happening in the wider world.
A Gathering of Ghosts is set on Dartmoor, or Dertemora as the locals call it, a slightly different place with a character of its own. The year is 1316. Europe is in the grip of famine, caused by months of wet weather. Crops have failed, animals die and there is no avoiding the wind and rain.
The Priory of St Mary contains a group of women, Sisters of the Order of the Knights of St John. Under their Prioress, Johanne they are surviving better than most, from the donations to the Holy Well. But the local people consider the well, sacred to the old Goddess Brigid, belongs to them. On the moor, starving men mine for tin and no-one can stop them.
It is not long since the Knights Templar were destroyed. The Hospitallers benefitted from their fall, but are wary of suffering the same fate. Brother Nicholas arrives at the Priory. He knows that women cannot be trusted to run their own affairs; the sisters must be removed. At the same time a blind boy appears at the Priory. Is he a devil or an innocent requiring protection?
The scene is set for confrontation as women fight for freedom from the domination of men; the Sisters for their independence, the villagers for their sacred well and the old religion, and the starving women of the tinners from slavery.
And as the rain falls, the land itself stirs.
As I expected, it was a dark and fascinating book, full of history and legend – giant dogs roam the hills! There is magic, or is that just in the minds of those who expect to see it? There are extensive Historical Notes that explain many of the myths and stories the author has used.
One of the best books this author has written. I would have bought it myself, if I hadn’t been lucky enough to receive this free uncorrected proof copy.