Company of Liars by Karen Maitland tells the story of a group of travellers during the outbreak of the Great Plague. It centre's round and is told by Camelot, a traveller who sells religious artefacts (all fake), but he describes it as 'selling hope' to people. Camelot considers himself to be ugly having sustained an injury that's left him without one eye, an injury used to advantage when selling holy relics, as the injury can be used in the explanation of where the relics came from.
As plague breaks out a company of travellers (or liars) begins to band together as they travel from place to place trying to find somewhere free of plague. First are two musicians, Rodrigo and Jofre, a travelling conjuror, Zophiel, an artist, Osmond and his heavily pregnant wife Adela, Osmond, a one armed story teller, a pale haired child with psychic ability Narigorm and Pleasance, a midwife who has been caring for her, and finally, a one armed story teller called Osmond.
As the title suggests, each of these characters has a hidden secret from their past and throughout the course of the story, each of these are revealed.
The book is beautifully written and really brought the age to life, the terror that the plague instilled in people and the religious zealousy that it inspired in some people, but it also shows the other side of fear, the lengths that some people will go to to protect others, even at the risk of their own lives. It soon becomes aparent that half of thise company don't like each other, but they are a company and as such will protect each other, although whether this is for noble or selfish reasons is not always clear.
The biggest secret and the final twist of the book was, I felt, Camelot's secret, which I guessed a little over half way through after a rather sledge hammer hint dropped by a minor character, although my reason behind the secret was completely wrong.
The book does hold a mystic element to it, although more through the character's beliefs about what could or would happen to them rather than what actually happened, because of this it didn't feel out of place, as can often happen when a writer suddenly drops mysticism in.
The opening prologue is very odd and I have to admit that I read through it assuming that it would either all become clear later or that it wasn't important and so I didn't need to think about it. As it happens I was probably less than fifty pages from the end before I finally understood what it was about, although I may have got there earlier if it hadn't been for some of my pre-conceived ideas about characters and events.
Over all I thoroughly enjoyed this book, it took me a little while to get into, but once I did I was hooked and having taken me a couple of weeks to read the first half I polished the second half off in a couple of days. Maitland creates wonderful characters each one with a clear voice that's easily identifiable. Each character's story is unique and at no point do you feel that Maitland was just padding to fill space. Very well written and very enjoyable with an ending that may make you think a little.