Company of Liars: A Story of the Plague

Written by Karen Maitland
Review by Ann Oughton

Midsummer’s Day 1348, and the first victim of the pestilence dies in the English coastal town of Kilmington.

Camelot, a generic title for a peddler or hawker, is the narrator and together with a motley group of fellow travellers, comprised of a conjuror, a musician and his apprentice, a deformed storyteller, an adolescent couple on the run, a midwife and a rune-reading girl, set out on a journey away from the disease-ridden town.

On the way, each member of the group tells a story, and shades of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales or Boccaccio’s Decamaron spring to mind. As they suffer the wettest summer of the century, the spread of plague, the subsequent shortage of food and the breakdown of law and order, the little band is beset by tragedy as one after another of the group suffers a violent end. Only Camelot begins to suspect the strange rune reader, an albino child whose prophecies seem uncannily accurate.

The author has certainly researched her story well and it shows, sometimes too much. There are some exciting episodes, but the pace is unnecessarily slowed by inconsequential storytelling and would be improved by some drastic pruning. Although the book is far too long it is redeemed somewhat by a devilish twist at the end.