The Plague Charmer 😧 Book Review

Written by Thelonia

A curse on the village of Porlock Weir brings the plague to the shores of England in the 1300s. But between illegitimate children, religious conflicts, an underground cult, and a strange woman pulled from the sea, the people have more than they can handle.

In The Plague Charmer by Karen Maitland, historical fiction and fantasy blend together in a wonderfully dramatic and very occasionally disgusting tale that climaxes in a penultimate fight ontop of a cliff-face with a tug of war between a sea-witch descended from a celtic saint, a priest-in-training, a bereaved mother, a dwarf, a severed hand, and a baby (not the mother's), all next to the grave of a murderer.

The Plague Charmer is one of those books that you can put down, forget about for a while, pick up again a few weeks later and still know where you were, who the characters (though there are many) are, and what was happening in the story.

In other words, it is the perfect subway book. 

Except for the fact that if you have a bad poker face, then you'll definitely be making this face in public a lot.

To be fair, many people make this face in the NYC subway system regardless of the plague.
To the average reader, The Plague Charmer will bring to mind Song of Ice and Fire series, on which the hit HBO show Game of Thrones is based. But the similarities are more than superficial. Like Game of Thrones, The Plague Charmer skips around narrative from point of view to point of view, covering a wide range of people and backgrounds. The first character to whom you are introduced is a dwarf (made, not born), named Will, whose hideousness (represented most horrifically by his permanent grin) makes him an outcast in the village. 

The Plague Charmer evokes so much this fantasy genre that about 50 pages in I had assumed that that was what it was – there was talk of a curse, a mystical box was found, and then suddenly the sky went black, And just when you’re thinking “the dragons have come!” the narrator continues to describe the black sky. And you realize it’s an Eclipse.

I have definitely read a Game of Thrones theory involving an eclipse and dragons though.
What follows is a balance of historical fact, life (and, more prominently, death) and the promise of maybe-magic. There are strange people who practice strange magics, but they are not in the Tolkien sense magic, but rather magic like people have always done magic. It’s not that glamorous or flashy, but every day and unverified most of the time.
That’s why I struggled so hard with defining the genre of this book. It is technically a historical fiction, but it has so many elements of the fantastical that it’s hard to ignore that aspect.

The plague devastates the village of Porlock Weir, a fishing-town in the South of England (which, due to my ignorance of British geography, and repeated descriptions of Wales across the water, I mistakenly assumed was in Ireland a few times), sweeping through and killing almost all the men off and leaving the women to fight amongst themselves and trying to lift a curse altogether.

Pictured here considerably less plague-ridden and medieval than in the book.
It was curious that only the men were dying from the plague, made me consider that the curse was in fact real, but thanks to a nice section in the appendices at the end, I learned that apparently men just died more than women in the actual plague (because of iron in the blood possibly?), so once again what seems like fantasy is just a strange strain of reality.

The Plague Charmer is a genuinely moving and compelling story that you can pick up at any time and read on the go or in a single go. Pick it up if you want a good read with some brilliant protagonists and great plot that could be either involve actual magic or not.

The Plague Charmer is available on Amazon.

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