Nine pilgrims try to outrun the Black Death in first novelist Maitland’s sensational take on The Canterbury Tales.
It’s 1348, and nonstop rain has been soaking England for months. Plague has struck the port cities, and a half-blind, disfigured peddler stops at a village fair to sell his fake religious relics. He plans to make for an inland shrine, in hopes of wintering far from the encroaching Black Death. The peddler haphazardly and reluctantly accumulates eight traveling companions. Zophiel, a magician and con man who has a wagon and horse, totes cargo (including an embalmed mermaid) that he won’t let anyone touch. Pregnant Adela and her husband Osmond have been banished by their families. Venetian minstrel Rodrigo and his apprentice Jofre have been sacked by their lord. Cygnus is a man born with a swan’s wing. Midwife/healer Pleasance is accompanied by her young albino charge, Narigorm, who casts runes. With echoes of The Seventh Seal and a nod to The Decameron, Maitland describes an England mired in superstition and paranoia as, destabilized by famine, pestilence and climate change, feudal society breaks down. The fugitive pilgrims can never shelter long in any town; either their own behavior (mostly Jofre’s drunken homosexual escapades) or the arrival of plague drives them on. They’re pursued by mysterious wolf-howls, and soon death stalks their numbers as well. After Pleasance is found hanged, they learn she was Jewish, concealing that fact because Jews are banned in England. Zophiel admits he’s a disgraced priest who’s being pursued by a “bishop’s wolf,” a holy hit man. Adela and Osmond may be brother and sister. One of the biggest mysteries here is why the group tolerates bad seed Narigorm. Although they believe in witches, vampires and werewolves, they apparently don’t mind that Narigorm revels in their misfortunes, when she’s not foretelling their doom or torturing small animals.
Decidedly not your English teacher’s Chaucer, but creepy, suspenseful fun.