Book Review: The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

Quick Review (read on for full review)

A fast-paced, chilling story of fear and superstition, set in fourteenth century rural England. A fantastic read.  Well-researched and wonderfully written.  Historical fiction at its best.  Unputdownable! 5 / 5

Summary (from Goodreads)

England, 1321. The tiny village of Ulewic teeters between survival and destruction, faith and doubt, God and demons. For shadowing the villagers’ lives are men cloaked in masks and secrecy, ruling with violence, intimidation, and terrifying fiery rites: the Owl Masters.

But another force is touching Ulewic—a newly formed community built and served only by women. Called a beguinage, it is a safe harbor of service and faith in defiance of the all-powerful Church.

Behind the walls of this sanctuary, women have gathered from all walks of life: a skilled physician, a towering former prostitute, a cook, a local convert. But life in Ulewic is growing more dangerous with each passing day. The women are the subject of rumors, envy, scorn, and fury…until the daughter of Ulewic’s most powerful man is cast out of her home and accepted into the beguinage—and battle lines are drawn.

Into this drama are swept innocents and conspirators: a parish priest trying to save himself from his own sins…a village teenager, pregnant and terrified…a woman once on the verge of sainthood, now cast out of the Church.…With Ulewic ravaged by flood and disease, and with villagers driven by fear, a secret inside the beguinage will draw the desperate and the depraved—until masks are dropped, faith is tested…and every lie is exposed.

Favourite Quote

I could have included so many, but I have whittled it down to two, the first, I think is certainly still relevant today…


Even when she was in a good mood Merchant Martha hated to be stuck behind anything, and fury did not improve her driving.

(The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland, pg 145)


‘…will you not make peace with God?’

‘What’s there to make peace about?  I’ve not spoken to God, nor He to me, so we’ve never had cause to quarrel.’

(The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland, pg 286)


This was the first of Karen Maitland’s books I read, and I have been hooked on her writing ever since.  I first read this book sometime before 2014 (which was the year I shelved it on Goodreads) so it’s been a good long while since I last read it.  In my opinion, The Owl Killers is just as good as Company of Liars, if not better (it’s hard for me tell, because I love them both).

The Owl Killers is a story about myth, legend and folklore, new beliefs versus old ones, but most of all, it is a story about strong women at a time when being strong and confident in your womanhood went against contemporary opinions of how a woman should be:

‘…you mustn’t be afeared, you’ve got the strength of a woman.’

Servant Martha, Healing Martha, Pega, Gwenith, Agnes…they (and more of the characters beside) are inspiring and strong, even when they’re not certain of it themselves.  And, they are not all strong in the same way or face the same problems.  Each character faces some sort of hardship that would have been faced by the women of the Dark Ages.  And not only do they have their own personal issues to deal with, but as a collective, they have much to face also.  The common people fear them for they cannot understand them.  The Church is against them because they cannot control them, and this, at a time when the Church held the power of life and death in their hands.

A beguinage – a sanctuary for women who did not wish to marry or become a nun – sounds to me, the perfect refuge for a woman who seeks only to be herself, who seeks freedom from the dominance of others.  Of course, these communities were not without rules, the paramount one being that one must remain celibate as long as they were part of the community, but you also had to serve the community you were part of in some way; in the fields, in the infirmaries, etc.  These women were also educated and taught to read, and could be elected to the council of Martha’s who together ensured these establishments were run as well as they possibly could be.

The location of the story was perfect; an isolated, fictitious village in Norfolk serves as the cauldron where all things meet.  And the darker elements of folklore and superstition were spooky enough, scary enough, to ensure the reader understands why the local population behave as they do.  And the lengths some of them go to because of fear and superstition is chilling.

I enjoyed how the story was set out: the timeline reflects that of the day: saints days, feasts and festivals, and the months are given to indicate where in the year we are, and alongside each, there is a snippet or two of background information regarding the day.  All very interesting and very educational.

There is so much I could say about this book – I’ve yet to mention changing climates and catastrophes such as poor harvests – but, for fear of writing an essay, I had better bring this review to an end.  If you enjoy well-researched historical fiction combined with the gothic and supernatural, and a story well-grounded in the time it is set, I can’t recommend this book enough.  Unputdownable!



7 thoughts on “Book Review: The Owl Killers by Karen Maitland

  1. Pingback: Bookish Reflections – August 2019 | Sammi Loves Books

  2. Great review! I could have sworn I already had this on my wish list because it sounds so familiar, but I don’t (or rather, didn’t). I must have looked up Maitland’s other books after enjoying Company of Liars so much. It sounds similar to that book in that it’s set in a real historical period, but has an edge of supernatural or maybe magical realism, where you aren’t quite sure if magic is real or not. I kept asking myself that with Company of Liars: is this really a fantasy book or not?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, similar indeed. You raise a very interesting point. Where is the line between historical fiction and fantasy? But then, when we consider how prevalent superstitions were during the time period, and how folklore, myth and legend were often favoured over fact, that line does become blurred. I suppose the question is, do we judge according to our perception of what is going on or the perception of the characters is the book?

      Liked by 1 person

      • I guess I’m pretty cut-and-dry because for me, the line between historical fiction and fantasy is clear: it’s whether magic and/or magical creatures actually exist in that world, or if people only believe (incorrectly) that magic is real. I can enjoy a book either way, as long as it’s internally consistent. The characters might go back and forth on whether they believe the magic is real, and they might be correct or incorrect in the end, but the underlying world needs to make sense to me one way or the other. What bugged me about Company of Liars is that I didn’t find it consistent: in most parts Maitland seemed to be conveying that the supernatural effects were all in their heads, all just superstition, but then she included magical effects and predictions that I just could NOT think of any possible realistic explanation for, if magic didn’t really exist. It was like she was trying to have it both ways.

        Liked by 1 person

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