Set in the English village of Ulewic (fictional, but placed somewhere near Norwich) in 1321-22, The Owl Killers is the story of a village fighting against forces both known and unknown. At the story’s center is the town’s beguinage, a community of women originally from Bruges who came to England to lead lives independent of marriage or the convent. When the town suffers from flood and plague, and the women are unaffected, the people in the town start to suspect them of harboring a holy relic. Meanwhile, the village is controlled by a group of men called the Owl Masters and haunted by the specter of the Owlman, who delivers nothing but death and destructionto the places and people he visits.
The story is narrated by a number of characters, including the beguinage’s leader, Servant Martha; the angry and bitter beguine named Beatrice; the town’s self-righteous priest, Father Ulfrid; Osmanna, daughter of the lord of the manor who is sheltered by the beguines; and one of the village children. The novel contains a curious and intriguing combination of pagan belief and Christianity, witchcraft and superstition.
I don’t normally read books with supernatural themes, but The Owl Killers grabbed me from page one and refused to let me go. One of my favorite things about this book is the characters; each narrator has their own strong, unique voice (my favorite was the sensible, practical Servant Martha). Maitland shows the middle ages as they really were, and she does so perfectly. Maitland delivers the symbolism a little heavy-handedly (of the “a candle blows out and someone dies” variety), but I nevertheless enjoyed this novel. Read it, and you’ll never feel the same way about owls or men in masks again.