Book review: The Raven’s Head by Karen Maitland

The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland
The Raven's Head by Karen Maitland

A terrifying lord of 13th century alchemy has his sights set on finding the secret of eternal life… and no child will be safe from his dark embrace.

The mistress of medieval Gothic works her own black magic again in The Raven’s Head, a fearsome feast of death, danger and disturbing truths set amidst the wild countryside of rural Norfolk.

Karen Maitland’s macabre and menacing tales – steeped in real history, superstition, mystery and myth – have become cult reading for lovers of spellbinding storytelling and hair-raising frissons of the supernatural.

Her powerful blend of fact, fantasy and fiction is at its best in this extra dark concoction which dabbles deliciously in the dangerous arts of medieval alchemy and its links to the mystical, gold-producing Philosopher’s Stone.

It’s 1224 and seventeen-year-old Vincent is apprenticed to the librarian at an imposing chateau in France when he stumbles upon a secret powerful enough to destroy his master.

With the reckless and foolish arrogance of youth, Vincent tries a bit of clumsy blackmail but the attempt fails and soon the teenager finds himself on the run and in possession of an intricately carved silver raven’s head, the alchemical symbol of death.

Vincent crosses the sea to England but no-one wants to buy the raven’s head… until he tries to palm it off on Lord Sylvain, a powerful Norfolk alchemist known as the great black bird and so feared that local goodwives ‘spit on their fingers to deflect the malice of his gaze.’

Meanwhile, Gisa, who works in her uncle’s apothecary shop in Langley, Norfolk, receives an unwelcome visitor on her 15th birthday. Lord Sylvain has brought her a gift… an elaborate mute swan brooch, a creature which ‘sings only as it dies.’

Sylvain is on an all-consuming quest and with Gisa innocently aiding his final preparations to forge the Philosopher’s Stone and the necessary symbols and victims now at hand, it is up to the secretive and sinister White Canons at nearby Langley Abbey to provide the crucial, missing ingredient… Regulus, a five-year-old boy with a formidable destiny.

Maitland adds power and pathos to this mesmerising tale by using the three unsuspecting youngsters – Vincent, Gisa and Regulus – as our narrators and guides through the mist and murk of medieval madness, vice and corruption.

As always, the atmosphere of menace is almost tangible and 13th century England springs to vibrant, authentic life in the capable hands of an author who has made this shadowy period of history her literary home.

The Raven’s Head has a truly chilling plotline, tackling so much more than just the dark arts of alchemy and turning adventure into a peril-packed drama brimming with pitiless rogues.

Prepare to have your spine well and truly tingled!

(Headline, paperback, £12.99)