I have to describe The Gallows Curse, by Karen Maitland, as both historical fiction and historical fantasy. The more I read of Maitland’s work, the more I wonder about a medieval world where magic was real. Everything else I’ve learned about the time period—the extreme violence, the power of the church, the lingering pagan practices, and so on—make it seem so alien from the modern world that magic is not the hardest thing to accept about medieval life. The Gallows Curse opens with a prologue in which a man comes to a witch seeking revenge for his daughter. The man, however, lied to the witch about why he wanted the poison. When the witch is convicted and sentenced to die (horribly), she curses the man’s family. The novel is the story of how that curse plays out for the next generation, even as King John is chasing French agents all over England and traitors are everywhere.
There is nothing remarkable about Elena other than she is kind to Master Raffaele brings her to the manor house, promoting her from field-working villein to tiring maid for his mistress, Lady Anne. A strange scene plays out while Lady Anne interviews Elena. They ask her repeatedly to eat the bread and salt they’ve laid out for her. As soon as she finished the odd meal, Elena is hired and dismissed for the rest of the day. Then Raffaele takes the body out of the chest Elena was sitting on and removes it to the cellar of the manor. Only then do we learn that Elena has been chosen to serve as sin-eater for the recently deceased master.
Raffaele and Elena take turns narrating the events of The Gallows Curse. Maitland never tips her hand, leaving the reader to slowly piece together the clues the characters drop. This is a gory, terrifying read. Elena eventually has to seek refuge in a brothel that caters to the kinks of the nobility. Raffaele has to deal with the new lord of the manor, Osbourn of Roxham, and his hunt-mad brother. Osbourn and his retinue have been sent to seek out French agents and traitors. They are the proto-typical bloodthirsty aristocrats that make one (okay, made me) wish for an equally proto-typical communist to level the playing field. Osbourn commits unjust act after unjust act, but no one can touch him because he has the king’s favor. Still, Gastmere is a long way from London. Anything could happen in the hinterlands.
What eventually brings the scales of justice back into balance is the revelation that the local witch is the granddaughter of the witch from the prologue and the Osbourn and his brother are the sons of the man who caused that witch’s death. (I don’t consider this a spoiler because it’s fairly easy to work this out from the narrative.) There are enough supernatural phenomena in The Gallows Curse to make it easy to believe that the Osbourn is not long for this world, even if Raffaele and Elena and their allies think he’s untouchable.
I’ve enjoyed Maitland’s other novels, Owl Killers and Company of Liars, but The Gallows Curse was too violent and disjointed for me. Raffaele was a wonderful character, but Elena struck me as the kind of helpless damsel that gets on my nerves. For most of the novel, her dialog consists mostly of repetitions of “I can’t” or “I won’t” before being coerced into doing whatever it is she can’t or won’t do. She’s had no reason to develop grit in her character and it takes her a long time to become as strong as many of the other characters. I understand that a girl like Elena wouldn’t have a lot of options, being a wanted criminal and escaped villein—but this is fiction. Make something up! So, unfortunately, I have to close The Gallows Curse feeling disappointed.