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The City Of Invention

The book reviews of UK children's author, Brian Keaney

A Chaucerian Story With A Modern Flavour

Company Of Liars - Karen Maitland

Set in the Middle Ages, Company of Liars is the story of a group of travellers, thrown together by chance, wandering across England at the time of the Great Plague. It's an apparently naturalistic story with fantastical elements sown into the plot.

The individuals who make up the company all guard their own secrets and each is escaping from something in his or her past. The development of the plot is principally generated by the unveiling of these secrets, revelations that are brought about by the influence of the most enigmatic member of the company, a child call Naringorm who ostensibly tells fortunes by casting rune-stones but more often creates the events she foretells by malevolent magic and by her own deviousness.

With its Chaucerian echoes (several of the characters tell their own tales for the entertainment of their companions) this novel is built on an appealing premise. However, despite the period detail, the characters never felt truly medieval to me. There was always too much of a modern sensibility about them, particularly about the narrator, a one-eyed seller of relics whose levels of tolerance seemed improbably enlightened.

My greatest criticism, however, is that the spiralling motion of the plot meant that there was never enough narrative drive, making this an intriguing but essentially unsatisfying read.