The Owl Killers, by Karen Maitland

theowlkillersTitle: The Owl Killers

Author: Maitland, Karen (Author’s Website)

Genre: Historical fiction

Bibliographic: Penguin, 640 pages, Paperback List Price $15.00, Audiobook List Price $53.41, ISBNs 9780385341707, 9780440244431, 9780141031897, 9780718153205, 9780440338888

Publication Date: March 26, 2009

Rating: ★★★☆☆/♥♥♥♡♡ (The rating scale is here).

Appeal Factors: Multiple perspectives, fast-paced, atmospheric, creepy, suspenseful, richly detailed

Why I picked it up: It was assigned for my readers’ advisory class. I would never have read it otherwise.

S.I.A.S.: A group of beguines struggles to survive in Medieval England, while a shadow group called the Owl Masters opposes them.

Summary: It’s 1321, and in the English village of Ulewic the first beguinage in all of England is struggling. With the exception of the local women who became beguines, most of the townspeople have mildly negative feelings towards the women: they aren’t going to be openly hostile (at least in the beginning), but they don’t really see the point of the women. The leader of the beguines, Servant Martha, is a no-nonsense Flemish woman who is committed to improving the community by working on behalf of God, but some of the other beguines view her as cold or harsh. Near the beginning of the book, Servant Martha is summoned to the local manor, where the local nobleman (Lord D’Acaster) insists that she take his daughter Agatha into the beguinage, since she is no longer a virgin and he refuses to harbor a slut under his roof. Servant Martha takes the girl in, and the beguines give her the new name Osmanna.

Father Ulfrid has been sent to Ulewic as punishment for taking advantage of his easy post in the cathedral to commit the sin of fornication — and that’s not all he’s done, but he’s desperate to keep the rest secret.  He is frustrated with the villagers who fail to pay their full tithes and insist on the continued celebration of the old religion (such as the celebration of Samhain and the veneration of Black Anu). The people above him in the church hierarchy are determined to catch him in a sin that will bring on an even harsher punishment. As the pressure they impose upon him gets more severe, he begins to believe that many of his problems can be solved if he brings the beguines to heel. They have done several things against his will — they gave refuge to a man with leprosy, they took in an anchorite who had been turned out of her home church, and they refused to perform public penance for sins they claim not to have committed — and when he hears that they are in possession of both a holy relic and a beguine who is advocating heretical beliefs, he decides to persecute them in the hopes of saving himself.

While all of this is going on, the villagers are also placing their trust into a mysterious group called the Owl Masters, who claim to have raised a demon that is half human, half owl. They demand that the villagers pay them for their protection from the creature and other calamities, and they are putting pressure on both the church and the beguines to cede their positions and let the Owl Masters have undisputed control of Ulewic.

Evaluation:  Man, this book was a slog. I can’t say I didn’t enjoy it at all, because I did find myself getting drawn into the plot on a few occasions (like near the end, when Osmanna realized who had raped her and decided to face the fire out of hatred, or when Pisspuddle was brought to the infirmary), but for the most part I had to force myself to read it. The writing was okay, although at first I had to make a point of reading near a computer so I could look things up, and I frequently had to refer back to the list of characters at the front of the book to remember which Martha was which and who all the minor characters were. I thought that some of the characters were three-dimensional, especially Servant Martha and Osmanna (both of whom got even more interesting as I came to realize that Beatrice wasn’t a reliable narrator).

There were two scenes that elicited a strong reaction from me. The first was when Father Ulfrid and Hilary meet in the forest — I was very surprised to find out about Hilary, as I suspect I was supposed to be (especially given the connotations of the name Hillary in the press right now), but I felt like I should have caught that myself. I was also pleased with Pega’s and Osmanna’s ending.

I highly doubt I’d ever recommend this book to anyone, unless they specifically want to read about beguines. The characters are too confusing, the Owl Masters seem too forced as villains, the big reveal at the end is a bit anticlimactic.

Also, I don’t understand why this book is called the Owl Killers, since nobody kills any owls and the group of people who do kill others are called the Owl Masters, which would have been a better title.

Significance: This book seems to be sort of a sleeper hit — it’s not wildly popular, but many of the people who have read it rave about it.

Readalikes: The Lord of Ireland, by E.M. Powell. The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco. Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Father Ulfrid bemoans the fact that he has consistently acted with compassion, claiming that it is responsible for all of his troubles. Servant Martha is sometimes criticized for having too little compassion, and Beatrice feels that this is the source of many of the beguines’ troubles. Are either of these views correct? What is the place of compassion in the novel?
  2. As the novel progresses, the reader comes to realize that Beatrice is an unreliable narrator. Are any of the other narrators unreliable? Whose interpretation of events did you find most convincing?
  3. As Osmanna awaits execution, Servant Martha is suffering from a crisis of faith. Why does she begin to doubt her beliefs? Do any of the other characters harbor similar doubts?
  4. Why does Beatrice come to resent Osmanna so strongly? Why does Osmanna behave the way she does? How is it possible for hatred to be a stronger motivator than faith?
  5. When a woman joins the beguinage, she is given a new name. Why do they do this? What is the power held in a name?

Lists and Awards:  Shirley Jackson Award Nominee (2009).

Professional Reviews: Publishers Weekly. A.V. Club. Historical Novel Society. The Bookseller.

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