A Gathering of Ghosts
by Karen Maitland
1316. On the wilds of Dartmoor stands the isolated Priory of St Mary, home to the Sisters of the Knights of St John. People journey from afar in search of healing at the holy well that lies beneath its chapel.
But the locals believe Dartmoor was theirs long before Christianity came to the land. And not all who visit seek miracles. When three strangers reach the moor, fear begins to stir as the well’s waters run with blood.
What witchcraft have the young woman, the Knight of St John and the blind child brought with them?
The Sisters will need to fight for everything they hold dear as the ghosts of the Old World gather in their midst.
Karen Maitland is well-known for her historical novels set in the Middle Ages, often with elements of the fantastical. She’s an author I’ve been meaning to try for years, so when I came across this novel in the library I knew I had to try it – I’m always drawn to stories involving nuns and nunneries!
Unfortunately, I didn’t love it as much as I expected to.
Did I dislike it, though? No – absolutely not, and that’s why this novel is such a difficult one to review.
Set in 14th century Devon, A Gathering of Ghosts follows several different characters – a prioress, a Knight of St John, a young witch named Morwen, and a woman named Sorrel searching for her purpose – who get caught up in the ongoing battle between Christianity and Paganism surrounding an ancient, sacred well. As a premise, that sounds like everything I should love in a story. Witches? Check. Nuns? Check. An exploration of Britain’s religious history? Check.
But I think all these voices was this novel’s downfall, because I spent the majority of this story feeling like I was waiting for the plot to start and, sadly, the scenes with the nuns, following the power struggle between the prioress and the knight, were the scenes I found the most boring because they never really changed. We saw them, they each told the reader how much they didn’t trust one another, and on and on it went.
The friendship that developed between Sorrel and Morwen, on the other hand, I liked much more – to the point where I started to wish we were only following them. Due to a problem at birth, Sorrel only has the use of one of her arms and it was so interesting reading how a woman would carry out work and day-to-day tasks during this period of history with the use of only one of her hands. I loved Sorrel’s chapters, and would happily have read an entire book about her.
I’m definitely interested in reading more of Maitland’s work because she has a real talent for bringing the Middle Ages to life, but I hope her other stories stick with me more than this one has. Just a couple of days after I finished A Gathering of Ghosts I was already forgetting a lot of what happened, and I think so much of that is down to spending quite a lot of time with characters I just didn’t care about.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction, though – especially historical fiction with a speculative twist – Maitland is an author you should have on your radar!