Wool merchant Robert is one of the richest men in Lincoln. But trade has become difficult as cargo starts to disappear and Flemish merchants are offering to pay for wool at higher prizes. Still, the beautiful widow Catlin seeks Roberts advice to invest her money and he quickly becomes enthralled by her. In the meantime, one of Robert’s tenants is struggling to make ends meet. When king Richard II imposes a poll tax for every head of the family above 15, they have no idea how to come by the money. Suddenly, peasants are revolting against the king and people start dying of unnatural causes in Lincoln.
I’ve never before read anything by Karen Maitland so The vanishing witch was my first acquaintance with her work. The novels opens around 1380 when king Richard II sits on the throne and times are hard. Especially for Gunther and his family. The unrest with the lower classes at the heavy taxation will lead to the peasant’s revolt. Maitland will even take you to the bloody streets of London during the revolt. The peasant’s revolt is the reason that I picked up this one up, but it isn’t the focus of this book. The storyline around Gunther is only secondary to the main plot.
The main story evolves around merchant Robert, his family and the widow Catlin. Robert falls in love with Catlin but soon his oldest son, Jan, smells there’s something wrong about her. Especially as people start to die in strange circumstances and the word witchcraft is uttered. Also a strange hooded fellow is seeking out Robert, Jan and the rest of the household to warn them about Catlin, but nobody listens until it’s too late. I didn’t really care about Catlin and Robert as I found them both annoying at times but the flip in perspective contributed to understand all that happened. There are a range of other characters such as Catlin’s children Edward and Leonia and Robert’s servants Beata and Tenney, and I found these side characters more of an interest to me.
The novel is told from Catlin, Gunther and a third person perspective who tells the tale of Robert. From the first pages onwards you sense that the narrator is a ghost but it’s only explained at the end who this person is and what his relation is to the rest of the characters.
This dark atmosphere is a big part of the book. Every chapter starts with a real medieval text fragment about witchcraft. I found them very funny to read. I challenge you to find out yourself if there is a real witch in this story or not… It’s up to you ;).
In the end, I can say that this is definitely my type of book. It has an interesting historical background, a great cast of characters and a gothic undertone. But in some ways, I found it slow to read. Something in Maitland’s writing style forces you to to take it all in.
This is book 1 for #20booksofsummer
Have you read anything by Karen Maitland? Do you know of any other books dealing with the peasant’s revolt?