The Owl Killers manages to go a long way based solely on atmosphere and setting, but it can’t coast all the way to its end on that alone. Karen Maitland conjures a terrific setting: The book takes place in a tiny (fictional) village on the coast of England, with a beguinage on its outskirts. Beguinages, communities of women who wished to neither marry nor join nunneries, are a little-publicized story of medieval life that Maitland has resurrected for this novel, and as she lays out just how this community of strong-willed women works, the novel is fascinating.
The problems come when Maitland tries to blend the stories of the beguinage women and their interpersonal struggles with an undercooked horror narrative that stems from the people in the village, torn between the old ways of pagan ritual and worship of Earth spirits, and the new world of hard-edged Christianity coupled with a feudalism seemingly designed to cripple the peasants who live under it.
Maitland tells her story through the first-person voices of five different characters, and while they all have well-realized voices, the intersection between their stories leaves a lot to be desired. The book bounces erratically from monster tale to interpersonal soap opera to Twilight Zone-style stories of a community trying to deal with outsiders in their midst, and the tones never completely mesh.
The titular characters—a band of men who dress in robes and owl masks that conceal their identities, such that the villagers call them Owl Masters—seem like they’re going to make worthy villains, or at least a shadowy presence at the edges of the novel’s true conflicts, always waiting to drop in and spread chaos. But Maitland never makes them as palpable a threat as they might have been, and the Owl Masters disappear for hundreds of pages at a time as the novel focuses on how the women at the beguinage tear themselves apart as much as conflict with the village does. This would be all right if Maitland didn’t keep reintroducing the Owl Masters as a force to be reckoned with, seemingly at random. When the group’s leader is unmasked near the novel’s end, it feels curiously like an afterthought.
It’s clear that what really interests Maitland is depicting the way the world worked in the Middle Ages, and when she’s doing that, the novel is almost as good as her prior Company Of Liars. But the plotting in Owl Killers is just too sloppy to live up to Maitland’s great setpieces. There are dark, dark moments throughout the narrative, but they feel strangely empty, largely because of the sprawling cast and storyline that Maitland keeps trying to shoehorn in at every turn.
That said, though, Maitland’s ability to paint a world caught between fear and reason, between superstition and an onrushing future, is second to none, and almost worth the price of admission. Her sketches of a world where life was nasty, brutish, and short and where people honestly believed in half-man, half-owl monsters are perfectly drawn. She creates a world worth getting lost in, but she never manages to make it feel like anything more than a leisurely vacation.