The Knave and the Maiden
Many books feature characters who remind us of ourselves or of people we know. They think like us (even if they are, in fact, wearing the garb of another era) and they act much like us. Every now and again, though, an author does a truly excellent job of creating a different world and filling that world with people who really belong to it. In her debut novel, Blythe Gifford has done just that.
The novel is set in 1357 England, a time of intense dislocation in European society. The Black Death is still a matter of recent memory from which England (and other countries, for that matter) has yet to recover. The plague killed so many that it upset the usual order of Medieval life, with the Church losing many of its nuns, clergy, and sources of funding, and the nobility losing many of its laborers. On top of all this domestic upheaval, England is embroiled in the Hundred Years’ War.
Against this backdrop, the mercenary knight Garren returns to the home of his friend William, Earl of Readington. Unwillingly nicknamed The Saviour by those who believe his saving of William’s life while fighting in France is a sign of a miracle or a divine power, Garren is extremely skeptical about religion. It is his loyalty to the critically ill William – as well as a wish to pray for his friend’s recovery – that leads Garren to become a reluctant pilgrim to the shrine of the Blessed Larina in order to deliver a message from William to the monk who guards the shrine.
The prioress of the nearby convent gives Garren a third pilgrimage assignment shortly before his departure, further strengthening his jaded attitude toward faith and religion. The Reverend Mother hires Garren to take one of her novices to the Shrine and, in order to prevent the girl from taking her vows, deflower her. Without meeting the victim, Garren eventually accepts. This is a development that may make many cringe, but which for me seemed to be written and used well throughout the story.
Domenica, the novice in question, is an orphan who was raised by the convent. Naïve and almost blindly convinced that God has a place for her, she is certain that the Blessed Larina will reaffirm her belief that she is meant to be a nun. After meeting and traveling with Domenica, Garren comes to realize that she truly is as good as she seems and he cannot bring himself to ruin her. Instead, he finds himself wanting to believe in something good again.
The characters in this novel are different than any characters I have met in a long time. Domenica and Garren really do seem to be products of their time and place in history. At times Domenica can seem a little too goody-goody, but her naïveté is ultimately very believable given her life as a convent-raised young woman in rural England. Her earnestness is refreshing and real and her effect on Garren is wonderful.
The secondary characters in this novel are an interesting bunch, too. The prioress is not a caricature of evil, but rather a worldly, jaded politician trying to preserve her place in an increasingly insecure world. The pilgrims are also, for the most part, an interesting and motley assortment. They come from different stations in life and almost all of them at some point show the reader who they are and why they might be making this journey. In some characters, most notably the serial widow, it seems the author is paying homage to Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales and this adds a bit of comic relief to what is primarily a sweetly melancholic tale.
This novel could have been an amazing read were it not for the suspense subplot thrown into it. Garren’s deal with the prioress throws a series of events into motion that ultimately culminates in an unnecessary and rather clumsily rendered suspense plot. This, combined with an over-the-top subplot involving a nun from the convent, were the main flaws that made this book a little jarring for me at times, especially towards the end.
Even so, The Knave and the Maiden remains a good debut. Bringing fourteenth century England to life with its myriad religious, social, and political upheavals is no easy task. To accomplish this without ever once embedding a history lecture in the text is truly amazing. Despite the rough spots, the setting and many of the characters in this novel will remain with me and I am curious to see what this author will do in the future.