During the Middle Ages, a lay group of women dedicated to a life of prayer, hard work, and community service thrived in the Low Countries. Known as the Beguines, Karen Maitland imagines what it might have been like for a group of these women to have struck out on their own to settle in an unwelcoming English town. The atmosphere is tense as the women are seen as outsiders, not part of Mother Church and not part of the resident pagan tradition either. The women bring their ideas of Christian charity to the townsfolk who regard them with suspicion and sometimes open hostility. As the village suffers through a series of disasters, the power of the Church is threatened, dark forces from earlier times reawaken, and the beguines must decide to make a stand or return to the safety of their continental shores.
Karen Maitland novel is well-researched and executed. The story is told from the various viewpoints of the characters in the town of Ulewic. In this way, we learn each of the beguine’s has her own history and her own reasons for joining the group. We understand the struggles of the local priest as he fits into a system that leaves him little room for personal choice. A nobleman’s daughter helps us feel the restrictions of living as a young woman in Medieval society. An array of townsfolk completes the cast. The Owl Killers are a group of masked men who harken back to a day before law and order. They are definitely flesh and blood and do their share of evil, but Maitland has, at times, blurred the line. Although most of the story feels firmly planted in third dimensional reality, there are a few places where things take on an otherworldly creepiness. Man’s ability for cruelty can be disturbing and this book certainly has those moments. The ending may leave you wanting more or maybe something else entirely.