Thursday, November 05, 2009

Book 1: Company of Liars

I read about this on either Bibliolatry or Books for Breakfast (I can't actually look up which of the two at the moment), and thought it sounded interesting.  It takes place in medieval England, 1348, and concerns a group of people that end up traveling together.  They are all strangers, and all of them have something to hide (hence the title).  Additionally, they are trying to avoid the pestilence, or plague, that is currently beginning to sweep the country.  Their first destination is a shrine in the hopes that it is too far inland and north to be affected.  Also, given the occupations of the travelers, they hope to make some money off the pilgrims.  With the setup, for some reason, I was expecting something reminiscent of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales (not that I've read much of that beyond excerpts).  In fact, the different characters do tell each other a few stories but other than that and the time period, it definitely wasn't like that.
Since the last novel I read was Antony and Cleopatra set in Rome/Egypt from 44-26 BC, it was shocking to see the differences between 1348 London and BC era Rome.  The Romans seemed so much more advanced!  Medieval England, in comparison, was steeped in superstition.  Obviously this isn't exactly a new revelation but reading the two novels so close together to compare just made it all the more apparent.  There is talk of werewolves and vampires (who were believed to be people that were killed by werewolves in those days) as well as various other superstitious rites.  For example, in one village the travelers come across a cripple wedding - the villagers chose two people in the village to marry each other in order to ward off the plague.
The narrator is Camelot, an old man that sells relics to the unsuspecting and gullible.  He has a huge scar on his face and only one eye - at separate points in the novel, he claims it was due to the Crusades and werewolves.  Of all the characters, he reveals the least about himself and his past to others.  The first to join him in his travels are Roderigo and Jofre, two Venetian entertainers, in search of a new lord.  They soon pick up Zophiel, a magician, a young married couple who are about to have a child, Pleasance, a healer, Narigorm, a young child that reads runes and is kind of creepy (or at least in the eyes of our narrator - while I trusted the narrator, others might find him less reliable and think he is crazy by the end) and finally Cygnus, a young story teller.  All of them have no desire to dwell on their pasts too much, and some are much more sympathetic than others.  Despite their differences, they decide to travel together - protection is much easier in a group, and it is easier to find food when they pool their sources.  Still, it is incredibly difficult to find food in England that winter, and they feel the effects.  (I may have misspelled some of the names since I can't reference the novel right now.)
The detail in this novel was amazing, and all the historical tidbits definitely made this worth the read.  For example, while I was just in Venice and noticed that there was an island called Murano famous for its glass making, I didn't realize that the glassblowers in Venice had at one point all been forced to that island.  Venitian officials wanted to preserve the secret of glass-making in order to continue to make a lot of money off of their glass (Venice definitely seems to have liked segregating people - they may not have been the first to segregate the Jews, but they were the first to call the place the Jews were confined to the ghetto).  Some rich would buy old monk robes to be buried in to trick the devil, etc.  As I said, they were very superstitious.  While I was expecting a literary novel/historical novel, there may be a slightly supernatural aspect to it.  Depending on one's view of the narrator, things are either completely natural and normal or there might be something more at play here.  Either way, Narigorm's rune readings tend to be rather accurate - deadly accurate in fact, as misfortune befalls the travelers repeatedly throughout the novel.

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