Thursday, 16 August 2012

Karen Maitland talks about Death in the Land of Fire & Ice

Today’s guest blogger is Karen Maitland who is the author 4 historical thrillers. In 2008 The Company of Liars was shortlisted for the Sue Feder Memorial Historical Award and was selected as a Waterstone book of the year. The Owl Killers was a 2009 Shirley Jackson award finalist.  Karen is also a member of the group Medieval Murderers.

And that,’ said my guide, ‘is where they used to publically execute the women and girls.  ‘They’d bind them and hurl them off the cliff into the lake below to drown.’

We were standing in one of the most stunning places on earth, on the edge of a sheer-side ravine gazing across an emerald green valley to the snow-capped mountains beyond, and far below was a black volcanic lake.  It was said to be so deep not even divers with modern equipment had reached the bottom.  Just now, the surface was unruffled, reflecting the dazzling snow, but I wondered how many human bones lay beneath those dark waters.

I write historical thrillers and my latest novel, The Falcons of Fire and Ice, is published today.  It begins in 1564, during the Inquisition in Portugal when the royal falconer is arrested by the Inquisition for allegedly killing two royal gyrfalcons.  The death of two birds does not sound that serious until you remember that if a falconer lost a valuable bird through carelessness, his flesh could be cut from his living body equivalent to the weight of the bird he had lost.  However, a white gyrfalcon was worth more than a king’s palace.  Indeed the great warrior Saladin once refused return one to its owner even when offered jewels and 1,000 gold crowns in ransom.

So, the royal falconer and his family are sentenced to death by burning, unless they can replace the birds.  The falconer’s daughter, Isabela, knows her only hope is to travel to Iceland to try to capture a pair of gyrfalcons from the wild, a risky business at the best of times, since they are all the property of the Danish Crown and even to disturbed a nest is a capital offence, but made more dangerous still by the fact that unknown to her, the Inquisition have sent someone along to make sure she never returns alive.

The 16th century was a brutal time in most countries.  The Inquisition had a network of lay spies hidden among the population looking for any signs of heresy, which could be as simple as not buying eels from your local fishmonger – a sign you might be a secret Jew.  You would never know who had reported you.  Confession was obtained by torture and confessing your own guilt was never enough, you had to name others too.  Things were not much better in Iceland during the same period, for they were caught up in the Reformation and if a family was caught sheltering a Catholic priest the men and young boys could be hanged and women and girls hurled off a cliff to drown.

On that very first trip to Iceland, some years ago now, I was to see a number of sights which so haunted me so that I knew one day they would find their way into a novel.  I went to a cave in the mountains where men and women had been forced to hide in fear of their lives during the Reformation.  This cave contained a hot water underground lake, which, from Viking times, had been used for swimming, and even giving birth.

But about twenty years before my visit, a group of locals were swimming in the cave and had just got out of the water, when a jet of boiling water erupted from it, filling the cave with steam.  In seconds, the water had gone from a comfortable bathing temperature to over 200OC.  When I visit the cave the water was gradually cooling, but it was still far too hot to touch.

©David Karna
Coincidently, I was in staying in a hotel the day I started writing, The Falcons of Fire and Ice.  I came through the lobby to see everyone cluster round the TV, watching pictures of a massive volcanic eruption in Iceland.  Eyjafallajökull, otherwise known as the big E, had just erupted and was to bring air travel chaos to millions.  Iceland does not just export her crime fiction!

I had planned this novel long before the modern Scandinavian crime novels took off in Britain, but I think that the chilling and bloody history of many Scandinavian countries is an equally atmospheric setting for the crime and thriller genre and one that has yet to be fully explored.  Maybe we shall see more of the great Scandinavian crime writers start to dig deep into their countries’ past to come up with thrillers that will prove every bit as popular as the contemporary ones.  

More information on Karen and her work can be found on her website.

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