Karen Maitland is fast becoming one of my must-read writers. Her historical potboilers are full of addictively gruesome details, supernatural mayhem, characters so vibrant they slap you in the face, and a sense of tension that is sometimes unbearable. In all, rollicking good reads! The Falcons of Fire and Ice is superb, and like her previous stories, it will remain in my collection to be re-read and savoured all over again.
This is the story of innocent Isabela, whose father is the Court Falconer in Portugal, in the year 1564. But when the falcons are found murdered, the Inquisition take him in for “questioning” – and their methods of interrogation are not for the faint-hearted. The boy King however has no stomach for the Inquisition’s excesses and in what seems like a futile attempt to save his Falconer’s life, suggests that a full pardon would be offered if the white falcons are replaced within a year. An offer that Isabela immediately grasps, despite knowing that the falcons are extremely rare and their only natural habitat is Iceland – a wild and unknown country of ice and terror. The brave girl sets off on her quest, unwittingly followed by agents of the Inquisition who are determined to stop her, and mysteriously aided by the Icelandic mystic Eydris, who herself is being tormented by a draugr (a revenant spirit).
This is a fast-paced story with a large cast of characters (some of whom have aliases!) so take your time and read carefully. It really does have two very different settings with the scorching torture of the Inquisition’s flames and the bitter harshness of the Icelandic wild, and this gives the story contrast from Maitland’s other works which are firmly set in Britain, allowing her to explore different mythologies and to experiment with the supernatural element more fully. The character of Eydris in particular is fascinating and her journey has several powerful reveals. As always Maitland revels in the graphic descriptions of gore and nastiness but this is skilfully handled, providing real meat on the bones of the tale rather than being off-putting. She succeeds in bringing the period to life in a visceral and sensuous way, and that’s what makes her stand out as an historical novelist – through her descriptions you can taste, touch and smell the world she’s invoking, empathise with the desperation and terror of her characters, and fully inhabit the fantasy she’s creating. If you read predominantly fantasy or horror you would be as drawn to her stories as fans of the historical novel, yet her research into the history is thorough, and the supernatural elements woven in perfectly naturally to the social reality of the time. I loved it. Rating: ****
Penguin Books, 2013, ISBN 9780141047454