Set in Medieval England just as the deadly pestilence is landing on the shores of that island nation, Company of Liars follows the travels of a group of nine who band together for safety as the first hope to find profit and then simply find safety with the plague – and maybe a wolf – licking at their heals. The characters are all archetypes of some sort but are fully developed as the novel progresses: the narrator and relic seller Camelot, the courtly musician Rodrigo of Venice and his moody apprentice Geoffrey, the cranky magician Zophiel, a young painter Osmond and his pregnant wife Adela, Cygnus the storyteller who has a wing in place of one arm, Pleasance the healer, and the creepy albino child Narigorm who foretells the future by reading runes.
Maitland creates an overwhelming sense of menace as the company has to escape the pestilence and other external threats while not even knowing if they can trust their fellow travelers. For each of the nine has a secret, some quite obvious, some less so but all compelling. The conclusion of the novel is quite abrupt and leaves a lot of questions unanswered, which I’m okay with. I was disappointed that after creating uncertainty between supernatural and rational explanations for the incidents that befall the company that Maitland comes down clearly on the side of supernatural in the concluding chapters. That is, of course, if Camelot is a reliable narrator.
This is an excellent book full of suspense, intriguing characters, and a well-researched slice of life of the medieval world during the plague. Many reviews compare it to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, but apart from being a band of travelers who tell stories the similarities end there. I think the Doomsday Book by Connie Willis and The Plague Tales by Ann Benson are more complementary books to Company of Liars.