The year is 1224. In northern France, Vincent, an ambitious young man apprenticed to the librarian of Comte Phillipe finds himself in possession of a great treasure: a finely worked jewelled raven’s head. Fleeing, he returns to the land of his birth, England, surviving by creating fantastical tales to sell to those in need of them.
In Norfolk, Lord Sylvain, a mysterious man who is feared in the neighbouring town of Langley, has been practising alchemy for years, in search of the philosopher’s stone. Nearby, in Langley Abbey, the White Canons are also hoping to get their hands on that which can give man immortality. Neither shy from the shedding of blood in pursuit of their goal, though their reasons for doing so differ. However, each have something the other needs, and so the White Canons and Lord Sylvain must work together if they are to find that which they seek…but they cannot have both have it.
Caught in the middle is a young boy named Regulus, on whose shoulders their success sits. But what purpose does he serve? And what of the young apothecary’s assistant, Gisa? Why is Lord Sylvain so insistent that she must work with him, alone, in his tower in Langley Manor? And how does Vincent tie into this intricate web of the dark arts?
Those of you who are regular visitors to Sammi Loves Books will know that I am a big fan of Karen Maitland, and, having loved all of the books I have read of hers so far, I knew I would love this one too.
The Raven’s Head is a dark tale of superstition and alchemy, richly woven together with finely created characters and vivid historical detail. Maitland doesn’t shy away from the darker side of medieval alchemy and magic and is able to bring to life a medieval world in which supernatural stories were used to cover up secrets from one’s past and were actually believed.
The cast of characters was diverse. Each had their own story to tell and their own well-crafted personality with which to do it. The places visited throughout the book are described in detail, so that very quickly not only can you envision the scene but also smell what the characters smell and hear what the characters hear.
The aspects of magic, alchemy and superstition were engaging and hooked me from the start. The historical notes and glossary in the back of the book were as interesting as the story that preceded. I liked how each chapter began with quotes taken from historical sources on alchemy, adding an extra layer of depth and realism to the novel.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading The Raven’s Head and cannot recommend it highly enough, to those who enjoy historical fiction but also those who are intrigued by medieval superstition and the supernatural.