THE OWL KILLERS by Karen Maitland

Book Quote:

“You’ve got the spirit of a cunning woman in you. . . You mustn’t be afraid, you’ve got the strength of a woman. You. . remember that.”

Book Review:

Review by Danielle Bullen (OCT 23, 2009)

Karen Maitland transports readers to a world of superstition in her medieval mystery The Owl Killers. In 1321, the village of Ulewic in England is ruled by the Owl Masters, pagan leaders who use violence and blackmail to keep the villagers under their control.

The village of Ulewic hangs in the balance between Christianity and paganism. The Owl Masters, masked men who are based on an actual cult, conduct rituals, including human sacrifice, to appease their gods.

At the same time, the Church wields power over the village too. Father Ulewic has been transferred there from the city of Norwich as a punishment following his conviction for adultery. Ulewic resents the backwater assignment. Church authorities breath down his neck, eager to collect their share of the parishes tithes. The poor villagers can barely afford the mandatory donations and are torn between that loyalty and the payments they must make to appease the Owl Masters.

The already tense situation flares up as new players arrive on the scene. Women from Flanders arrive in Ulewic to start a beguinage. Beguinages were communities of women. Like nuns, they took vows of chastity. Unlike nuns, beguines did not take vows of poverty, and were encouraged to work and earn their own money. They could come and go as they pleased,. The women devoted their free time to serving those in need. These communities served as a middle ground between marriage and convents for women seeking independence. In the novel, the beguines are viewed suspiciously. Besides nuns, the only other women who lived without men were prostitutes and witches.

When the cattle in the village come down with the murrain, a deadly virus, yet the animals in the beguinage are spared, rumors about black magic fly. A local villager contracts epilepsy and according to Church tradition, is banished. The beguines open their home to him and the people of Ulewic are stunned and frightened. Who are these women?

Conflict brews within the walls of the beguinage too. The beguines give shelter to some controversial women. Andrew is a holy woman who is starving herself as a sign of piety. As she is dying, she spits up the host. The women wonder if it is now a relic. If it is, they must turn it over to the Church. Debate heats up over what to do and when Father Ulewic hears of its existence, battle lines are drawn.

Agatha, daughter of Lord D’Acaster, is cast out of her noble home and seeks refuge. She begins to adopt some controversial religious beliefs, such as people can speak directly to God without a priest to intervene and that salvation comes through faith alone. Eventually these beliefs will cause her and the beguinage a world of trouble.

The strength of the novel is its narrative style. Maitland alternates points of view between various villagers and beguines, creating a complete picture of a time and place very different from our own. She gives special attention to the beguines. Several act as narrators, each with a unique take on the events unfolding around her.

The novel is very evocative of a certain era and an air of mystery surrounds the plot and characters. It is long, but Maitland’s vibrant writing makes it move along rather quickly. Each chapter is rather short, creating a punchy sense of action.

Whether you enjoy historical fiction or are looking for a story that empowers women, I highly recommend this novel.

AMAZON READER RATING: stars-4-0from 4 readers
PUBLISHER: Delacorte Press; First Edition edition (September 29, 2009)
REVIEWER: Danielle Bullen
AMAZON PAGE: The Owl Killers
AUTHOR WEBSITE: Karen Maitland
EXTRAS: Excerpt
MORE ON MOSTLYFICTION: Other Medieval stories:

The Cross-Legged Knight by Candace Robb

The Jester by James Patterson

The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova

Cabal of the Westford Knight by David S. Brody

Eifetheim by Michael Flynn

More empowered women fiction:

The Giulianna Legacy by Alexis Masters

The Mists of Avalon by Miriam Zimmer Bradley

A Short History of Women by Kate Walbert


October 23, 2009 · Judi Clark · No Comments
Tags: ,  · Posted in: Facing History, Mystery/Suspense

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