Trigger warning for brief description of child abuse.
When The Plague Charmer, by Karen Maitland, opens a little more than a decade after bubonic plague ripped across Europe and killed between a quarter and a third of everyone who caught the disease. The little town of Porlock Weir and the nearby Porlock Manor have survived, but it’s clear that things aren’t back to the way they were before the Great Mortality. Labor is in short supply. The feudal lord is permanently absent. There aren’t enough clergy to go around. And, above all, everyone has a sharp eye out for strangers with signs of plague. The milk of human kindness has gone sour.
The Plague Charmer is narrated by a curious quintet of characters. First, there’s Will, who was brutally abused as a child to restrict his growth so that he could pass as a dwarf. Second, Sara is a housewife who worries about feeding and caring for her small family. Third is the sinister Matilda, a widow who frets more about her neighbors’ sins than the mostly-absent priest. Fourth, Luke is Sara’s oldest child and has to survive in the wide world after disaster strikes Porlock Weir. Last is young Christina, one of the few aristocrats in this story. Powerless Christina serves mostly as a view into events at Porlock Manor.
As it did in 1347-1348, bubonic plague arrives by ship. This time, however, it arrives via a shipwreck. Two children wash up on shore and, while Sara and her friends prepare the bodies for a Christian burial, it is discovered that at least one of them had full plague. The villagers try to quarantine Sara, her family, and a few other unfortunates who came in contact with the bodies, but it’s too late. People start to die within days. The priest flees with the church valuables and the Manor shuts its doors. Porlock Weir is on its own. To make things more interesting—as if they need to be more interesting—a survivor of the shipwreck offers the people of Porlock Weir a deal. If they agree to pay her price, the stranger known as Janiveer will drive out the plague. The adults know what’s coming. They survived the plague. They all have family members who weren’t as fortunate. But if the price is someone’s death (as they’re lead to believe) how can they sacrifice someone on the hope that the rest of them will live?
The Plague Charmer races along after the failed quarantine. Residents send themselves on hopeless quests. Luke runs into a small cult. Sara and Matilda fight over what happens next. Janiveer schemes. Will is constantly caught in the middle and blamed for everything that goes wrong, whether he actually did it or not. So much happens in this novel that Porlock Weir will never be the same. My summary here does not do justice to the packed plot or to the deep characterization that happens in this book. When the characters aren’t responding to the latest threat, they’re wondering about guilt, sacrifice, and what to believe in.
Karen Maitland is one of my favorite writers of medieval historical fiction. It’s clear that Maitland has done a lot of research—Sara’s chapters are headed by fish-based remedies, while Matilda’s begin with references to apocryphal medieval saints—but there’s so much grit that I could never mistake it for a sanitized version of history or courtly romance. Readers of this blog will also know that I love complicated, twisty plots and The Plague Charmer absolutely delivers. There’s so much dramatic tension in this book that the omnipresent threat of plague is almost superfluous to requirements.
I recommend this book for fans of dark history—but I might suggest that readers want until after the pandemic is over before reading a story set in another plague.