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By Andrew Zack

I remember well the days when a medieval mystery rode the best-seller list. THE NAME OF THE ROSE, by Umberto Eco, turned a lot of preconceptions around for publishers, I think. The time period, the setting, and even the protagonist were a long way away from mysteries of the times. And remembering all that, I was pleasantly surprised to learn about Karen Maitland’s medieval novels and wishing I had more time for “non-work” reading.

Coming out this summer in the UK from Michael Joseph, an imprint of Penguin, FALCONS OF FIRE AND ICE is Maitland’s fourth medieval thriller (she emphasizes they are thrillers, not mysteries and, while there might be some sex, there’s no romance) and it sounds like a winner.

The year is 1539 and the Portuguese Inquisition ushers in an era of torture and murder. When the Royal Falconer is imprisoned on false charges to remove him from the inner circle of the boy King, the Inquisitors strike an impossible deal with his daughter, Isabela. Bring back two rare white falcons from Iceland within the year or her father dies.

Meanwhile in Iceland, a woman who appears possessed has been chained up in a volcanic cave and is threatening to destroy the community. The woman’s twin sister, Eydis, is desperate to intervene but vivid dreams suggest the twins’ only salvation lies with a young girl from afar, travelling in search of white feathers…

Isabela’s quest might hold a more crucial purpose then she could ever imagine and there are those among her travel companions who have an interest in doing her harm. But in order to fulfill her destiny, first she must reach Iceland’s shores. Alive.

Talking to Maitland, one immediately knows he is conversing with a dedicated researcher, a novelist who is not just making it up as she goes along, but instead has sought inspiration for her fiction from reality. “Initially I became fascinated by visiting medieval buildings in Belgium and discovered the cities of women that grew up in the Middle Ages. These fascinated me because we weren’t taught about them in school,” she said. Of her latest novel’s plot, she said, “It was inspired by visits to Iceland some years ago, in which I was taken down a cave on the fault line between the two plates which are tearing Iceland apart. The cave was used since Viking times. It has a hot water lake in it and was used both for women to give birth in and where people hid during the terrible years of persecution. I’ve brought a lot into the novel from the dark ancient Sagas of Iceland, including the idea of the draugr or nightstalker, which people right up to the nineteenth century believed could be summoned from the dead.”

And what authors influence her? “Margaret Atwood, Toni Morrison, Angela Carter. Authors who aren’t necessarily historical writers, but who have characters who are amazingly well drawn and have an inner life as well. Authors who have a kind of magic realism in their novels.” The biggest influence when growing up was Graeham Green because of his anti-heroes. “A rogue character is always more fun to write than a saint. Most of my main characters are anti-heroes, though in FALCONS OF FIRE AND ICE, the main character is a heroine, but surrounded by anti-heroes.”

Her advice for new writers?  “You have to be passionate about what you want to write about, rather than looking at what you think will be the next big thing.  If you write about something about which you aren’t passionate, it will show in your work and, more importantly, it won’t sustain you over the rough patches.  When I started to write historical novels, I was told the genre was dying and finished, but by the time I finished my novel, they were coming back.”


Karen Maitland’s first medieval thriller, COMPANY OF LIARS, was set at the time of the Black Death in 1348. This was followed by THE OWL KILLERS about the cult of the Owlman and the medieval cities of women. THE GALLOWS CURSE takes place during in the turbulent reign of King John and her latest historical thriller is FALCONS OF FIRE AND ICE. Karen is also one of six historical crime writers known as the Medieval Murderers, who together write an annual joint murder-mystery novel, including THE SACRED STONE, HILL OF BONES and THE FIRST MURDER.

You can read more about Maitland at her website.

Andrew Zack
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