Tuesday, November 3, 2009

"The Owl Killers"

Karen Maitland has spent much of her life traveling, spending her early childhood in the sunshine of Malta and later journeying to the ice and snow of the Arctic and Greenland.

Her first novel, The White Room, a modern thriller about terrorism, is based on her experiences as a student in Belfast during "The Troubles." Her acclaimed Company of Liars was shortlisted for a Sue Feder Memorial Award for best historical mystery of 2008, one of the Macavity Awards.

She applied the Page 69 Test to her new historical mystery, The Owl Killers, and reported the following:
England 1321, and the isolated village of Ulewic is ruled by the Owl Masters, members of an sinister ancient cult, who have created a world of fear and blackmail, in which neighbours betray neighbours and sin is punished with murder. When a group of religious women arrive determined to set up a beguinage, a “city of women”, on the edge of the village, the Owl Masters try to terrify the women into leaving. But both the village and the beguinage are harbouring secrets which could utterly destroy them.

Page 69 of The Owl Killers happens to be a Chapter Title Page and not a page of the actual story. But strangely it does reflect a key theme in the novel – the battle between Christian and pagan. In Medieval times they didn’t use numbers for dates, instead they named the days. So part of the chapter title on p.69 reads:

“May – Rood Day or Crossmas… also known as Avoiding Day, a day of ill fortune, a time to avoid getting married, travelling or counting money, because the evil spirits are determined to cause mischief.”

But you might say that no page in this book would be representative of the novel, because the story is narrated in five different voices by five of the key characters: Father Ulfrid the village priest, Pisspuddle a little village girl, and three of the beguines – the elderly Servant Martha, the tormented Beatrice and the teenage Agatha. As each of them struggle with their own separate problems, none of the five narrators realise that their lives are about to collide in a battle for life or death.

On the page before p. 69, Agatha, outcast daughter of the Lord of the Manor, has been taken into the beguinage following a terrible attack in the forest after she’d witness one of the horrifying rites of the Owl Masters.

Catherine came closer and glanced at me shyly. “I heard some of the beguines talking about the fire in the forest, about the… Owl Masters. Who are they?”

“No one knows who they are; that’s the point. Why else would they wear masks?” I shuddered, desperately trying not to see those feathered masks circling the fire.

“But why owls?”

“I don’t know! I suppose because owls bring ill-fortune and death to any house they alight on. And that’s what the Owl Masters do.”

“Pega says owls eat the souls of dead babies if they die unbaptised,” Catherine whispered…

…In the deep forest, beyond the safety of the courtyard walls, it would already be dark. The trees would be closing together, their branches blotting out the sky, like the walls of a cave. There was no escape, no way out of that living prison. No way of running from the brambles that dug their claws into my skirts, or the roots that wrapped themselves around my ankles, chaining me down in the suffocating reek of rotting leaves. And somewhere in the forest that creature would be watching for me to step outside the beguinage gate. I felt the rush of air from its wings on my face, the cold talons gripping my skin. The demon was waiting somewhere out there in darkness, waiting for me to come again.
Read an excerpt from The Owl Killers, and learn more about the author and her work at Karen Maitland's website.

Visit the complete list of books in the Page 69 Test Series.

--Marshal Zeringue