After finishing The Silent Woman I was at a loss as to what to read next and so I did what I usually do in that situation, which is to choose a few books that appeal and read the beginnings of each of them, read the blurbs over and over, and choose which one to commit to by whatever feels right at the time. It’s a gut feeling, a mood, an urge. It’s quite random and often results in perfectly good books like The Vanishing Witch being unfairly left alone. So I read the Prologue and part of the opening chapter of The Raven’s Head; I wasn’t sure how much I liked it at first, but my instinct drove me on, and I ploughed through a hundred pages in the first sitting.
It is Medieval, dark, mysterious, and certainly engaging. The Prologue introduces us to young boy named Wilky and his family, and the mysterious priests dressed all the white who come to take him away, supposedly to educate him. But they come too soon, he is too young, not ready, and is both confused and terrified as they swing him up onto a horse and carry him off into the night. Next we meet Vincent, the only character with a first person narrative, who works as a scribe’s apprentice at the home of Philippe, a French nobleman. He lives his life in a turret with his master, almost a cliche of a crotchety old man, and has a safe but boring and unpleasant life. He yearns for adventure. Gisa does also; she works in her uncle’s apothecary shop and has absorbed all his knowledge of herbs, oils, unguents, poultices, and powders. Their three stories slowly work themselves closer together as the book goes on, and they ultimately encounter each other in Gisa’s world, in Norfolk.
I wonder how much Maitland was thinking about fate and destiny as she wrote. The more I read, the more I thought about them and now much of a role they play in this story. There is also the question of our ‘true self’ and what it is that we really want from life – and that this may be different from what we first thought. Almost every character in this book is tested and pushed to their limit, forced to confront things they have no desire to, and to suffer terribly for as-yet-unknown reasons.
Suffice to say they all have a pretty hard time of it. Wilky is subject to the harshness of life at the abbey, with punishments for even the slightest transgressions, and the fear of being taken away in the night; Gisa is soon employed by the strange Lord Sylvain to grind powders and help him with his ‘work’ in his tower (all so Gothic!); and Vincent soon finds a way to blackmail Philippe, thinking himself clever, and is subsequently sent on a mission with a silver raven’s head as his precious cargo. Guess what, it’s the raven’s head of the title and it’s a lot more important than the young Vincent thinks it is. He thinks he can sell it and make his fortune… but the raven has other plans.
I don’t want to say too much more about the plot for fear of ruining it for those of you who plan to read the book. The twists and turns create so much excitement it would be terrible to know them all in advance (I guessed rather few of the surprises), and it really is a story that you want to sweep you away and transport you. The classic Gothic side of things accelerates as the story goes on, and the cliches of the genre are used extremely well, so that they are exciting and relevant rather than re-hashed retellings. Maitland’s prose and characterisations are strong enough to prevent The Raven’s Head from descending into pastiche or ludicrous melodrama, and at though sometimes I did roll my eyes at moments that were overblown or unoriginal – but I appreciated the use of the Gothic and the storytelling, the vividness, and the humanity. There are some moments and scenes that are a little over the top, but they are still enjoyable and well written, and do not take away the merit from the whole. I sat and happily read this story for hours, caring about the characters and enchanted by their adventures. If you take some of the more OTT bits with a pinch of salt, The Raven’s Head is a very enjoyable romp.
The Raven’s Head is published in March 2015 by Headline Review. My copy was kindly provided by the publisher for review.