Saturday, October 9, 2010

SM5S: The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

A fun way to add variety to review formats this meme was created by Alipet at That's A Novel Idea.

Jenners at Life...With Books  has the Mr Linky each week so we can share our posts .

1 book I read: The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

2 words that describe the book: Medieval Mayhem

3 settings and/or characters I met:

  • England, 1321 - the village of Ulewic, a small and isolated community, where the inhabitants have interbred and only rarely receive visitors from the outside world. Here ,centuries of superstitious belief have allowed the pagan Owl Masters to rule through fear of the paranormal creature they appear to control.

  • A group of women who have established a beguinage on the outskirts of the village. The initial distrust of the villagers will gradually escalate into violence when their charitable actions towards a leper, the raped and outcast daughter of the local lord, the deaf and dumb granddaughter of a suspected witch........and more........are used by the Owl Masters to create dissension.

  • Father Ulfrid - the village priest who has been sent here as for punishment for breaking his vows of celibacy.
4  things I liked/disliked about the book:

  • I liked the author's vision of a medieval village that is very realistic and totally unromanticized. At this time in history climatic changes caused failed harvests, flooding and animal plagues which brought great suffering to ordinary people already living in poor and unsanitary conditions. For the uneducated and rather dull-witted villagers if it wasn't the wrath of God or witchcraft causing the misery than the finger of blame pointed to anyone considered an 'outsider'
"The courtyard was filthy, ankle-deep in the mud of winter, slimed with hog and poultry droppings and stinking of piss."
  • I liked learning about the beguines - I don't recall ever reading anything about them before. The beguines were women who did not want to marry or to become nuns who formed communities where they they farmed and supported themselves by practicing various crafts. They traded, established hospitals, educated girls and wrote many books.They took no vows but preached openly, translated the bible - were excommunicated and some were even burned for heresy. Although it's never been established that they existed in England it's quite possible they did.
  • I liked the way the author, while writing about 14th century spiritual and religious beliefs and conflicts, has chosen issues that still exist today. Father Ulfrid has transgressed but is terrified that it will be discovered his lover is not a woman but a man - he is a gay priest. The beguines reflect the contemporary struggle of women's roles within the Church structure.
  • Overall I liked the writing style and the wonderful atmosphere Karen Maitland creates. The only ( very small) dislike is that the story is told by five different narrators. It does give an interesting variety of perspectives but at times it was a bit jumpy and interrupted the flow.
5 Stars or less for my rating:

4 Stars for The Owl Killers...............I really enjoyed it and thought it was a well constructed mixture of history, a touch of the paranormal and great storytelling. It also includes historical notes, a glossary, discussion notes and a Q & A with the author - all of which is most interesting. I recommend to all historical fiction lovers.


  1. This book sounds interesting. The nit and grit alone sounds refreshing in the sense that it seems more in your face real with the harshness of life that people lived back then. I appreciate books that can accomplish that task.

    The beguines sound intriguing, and I do hope it was a reality. Although, I would think it would have been a harsh reality to some extent, but then again, some of the marriages were rather harsh as well.

    where do you find your books, such as this one. I have not heard of it prior to this review of yours.
    I do like your Show me 5 posts. :D

  2. I posted about this back in Jan. on Friday Finds and a look back at that shows I found it on the shortlist for the ALA award for historical fiction . Has been quite a wait but worth it.

  3. Thanks for mentioning the definition for beguinage -- it came up in a book I just read (The Gargoyle) and it seemed like it was kind of like a nunnery but not quite. (I'm so lazy that I didn't look it up. You might enjoy "The Gargoyle" by Andrew Davidson if you haven't read it yet. It mixes historical fiction with a modern tale. It was quite good actually.)

    And reading the description of life in the medieval village makes me so thankful I live in modern times. I couldn't have cut it back then!