A Gathering of Ghosts by Karen Maitland is a historical fiction novel with dark fantasy elements. Set in the wilds of Dartmoor in the year 1316, the story centres around the isolated Priory of St. Mary, home to the Sisters of the Knights of St. John. At this priory, led by Prioress Johanne, they see to the infirmed who are in need of care, as well as provide shelter for pilgrims and other travelers making their way across the hazardous countryside. Their main attraction is the healing well that sits in a cave beneath their chapel, once associated with a pagan goddess but now dedicated to Saint Mary, which brings them many visitors from near and far.
With the country at large gripped by the Great Famine and tin miners ravaging the moorland for its precious ore nearby, everybody is feeling the strain as desperate times become worse and worse, including heavy rains that seem unending. The arrival of three strangers to Dartmoor—a knight, a blind child, and a woman with a withered arm—only seems to make matters worse, as soon after their arrival the holy well is beset upon by uncanny plagues.
Though I must admit that what first drew me to this book was its striking cover design, I was further enticed by the vague promise of a darkly historical story that incorporates fantasy elements in some way. Knowing little else about it, I went in fairly blind. As it turns out, this book had many things to teach me as this narrative unfolded.
The story is told through from many perspectives, weaving together an intriguing web of characters that help to firmly cement you in the time and place this story is set. My understanding of the Middle Ages in general is fairly rudimentary and I knew even less about the 1300s in England, so it turned out that I had a lot to learn about this setting, and the book was very eager to teach me. Despite the use of some words from the local dialect, pagan beliefs that I was unfamiliar with, and holy institutions I’m not sure I’d heard of before, the book was remarkably accessible. The book includes a helpful Notes section and Glossary to elucidate certain things further, but I did not find it necessary.
One of the book’s greatest strengths, in fact, is just how much it entrenches the reader in its setting. The wild, weather-beaten moorlands and the cold, isolated priory were both well-realized as places, and an especially compelling atmosphere was built around just how bleak and oppressive both the natural world and society can be to those who are struggling the most, even when everybody is struggling. A great deal of world-building was carried out too, bringing real-world history, superstitions, and clashing belief systems to life on the page, keeping me consistently engaged with the narrative. Thanks to this book I know a fair amount more about pagan beliefs of the British islands than I did before I started it.
The story has two spiritual focal points, the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem—or more simply the Knights Hospitaller—and the local pagan worship of the goddess Brigid and the power of her healing well. The knight Brother Nicholas, the prioress, and the other sisters at the priory belong to the former. The latter we understand through Sorrel, the woman with a withered arm who is supposedly led by the voice of Brigid in her head, Morwen, whose mother used to tend Brigid’s well before the Knights Hospitaller took it over, and Meggy, a local woman who works as the gatekeeper at the priory but still holds with many of the old beliefs. Both points of view were excellent windows into the ways people saw the world at the time, as well as a way to understand the points of view of each character specifically.
Despite how grounded the story appears to be in historical accuracy, an ongoing question for me while reading was what power these spiritual beliefs really hold over the story and this world. For a while, it seemed uncertain to me whether fantastical elements would become undeniable, or if the story would stay grounded in reality for the most part. Though I won’t expound on it too much, the novel does firmly commit one way or the other, and I really enjoyed how it all slowly came together.
The plot itself, such as it is, was a much slower burn than I was expecting. In some respects the slower pace worked to its advantage, as this afforded the book a lot of time to get the reader intimately acquainted with the characters and fully engrossed in the world. On the other hand, it made certain elements of the story feel repetitive to me, especially around Prioress Johanne and the priory. Brother Nicholas is there to determine if something is amiss with how the priory is run, determined to find something wrong to report no matter what, threatening the Sisters’ very position within the order and their autonomy at the priory. This held a lot of compelling intrigue on its own, but this often amounted to a lot of badgering and threats on Nicholas’s part and simmering anxiety and plotting on Johanne’s, often going back and forth, building tensions but not really moving anything forward.
The mystery at the heart of the story, however, I found most intriguing, and it concerned the nature of the blind child who mysteriously appears in the priory’s chapel at the beginning of the story. To some, his arrival is a portents of doom, especially as a blind priest who meets him scorns him as a thing of evil and then dies in the night. Others, however, see him only as a child that needs protecting. As things at the priory only become more uncanny, with some working to keep him away from the well and others trying to get him to it, for a while it was difficult to determine who ought to succeed and whether it will be a triumph or damnation.
Though there is contention between the two belief systems, and the story ultimately deferred to one of them, it did a great job of not vilifying one or the other. Everybody in this story, whether good, bad, or something in between, is struggling for survival and trying to do right by what they believe. Though some are more openly willing to allow harm to come to others along the way, there’s no easy way for any of them to get what they want without negatively effecting someone else. The motif of survival relates just as much to matters of the spirit as those of the body, and knowing some of the historical context beyond what happens in this book makes certain aspects all the more poignant.
A Gathering of Ghosts is a great book, only hindered by how slow of a burn the story is. The slow pace was great for immersing the reader in the story’s world, but it made the story feel a little too tedious at times. It was ultimately a minor shortcoming, but worth noting considering the length of the book. If a strong cast of characters and an intriguing, historical world steeped in pagan and Christian beliefs more than makes up for that for you, as it did for me, I highly recommend checking this book out.
My Rating: 4 out of 5