Plague Land by SD Sykes

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Plague Land by SD Sykes

Category: Crime (Historical)
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Ani Johnson
Reviewed by Ani Johnson
Summary: A murder mystery set in 14th century plague ravaged England. The who-dunnit is fairly easy to spot but the why knocks us for six. Definitely recommended!
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 352 Date: September 2014
Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 978-1444785777

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1350 and the plague rattles through England. It's the plague that took Oswald de Lacey's father and brothers, causing him to leave the monastery and become Lord Somershill. It's the plague that had given Oswald the local constable's job when it took the former incumbent. Therefore it's the plague that caused Oswald to investigate the murder of a young girl found in the forest. She was reputedly killed by Satan's emissary, the dog headed beast. Oswald suspects differently if he can conquer the superstition of others and stay alive long enough. He may be scared of the plague but the thing that really frightens him is that it's not just the plague that threatens his life.

Murder thrillers set against the Black Death are apparently like buses. None for ages and then we're treated to both Plague by CC Humphreys and now this debut novel from SD Sykes. (Sarah to her mum.) There are major differences, mainly because whereas CC chose the 17th century-pre-Fire-of-London scourge, SD selects the 14th century outbreak before it received its 'bubonic' tag. Something she does have in common with CC is that Sarah provides us with characters that are as interesting as their era.

Oswald, Lord Somershill, is young, sheltered and really not expecting the job, the castle, the land, the serfs and the problems, let alone the murder. A mark of his protected upbringing is that he's amazed when he learns that his father, the late Lord, has bastards scattered throughout the local villages. However, he learns on the job guided by Brother Peter, an older monk whom Oswald first met when he was in cloistered life.

Peter is as world-weary and world-aware as Oswald is innocent. He's also sensible, relying on science (such as it was then) rather than superstition, making him extremely useful. This is more than we can say of Oswald's mother (who has a wonderful almost Black Adder-esque early dementia vagueness) and the ironically named Clemence, Oswald's cruel and sadly elderly spinster of a sister. (Elderly by their standards; Clemence is 24.)

Oswald tries to stem the capricious unhelpfulness of Clemence's actions, while circumnavigating his mother and coming to terms with political changes. The major change is that serfs work their own land and therefore can be a little less eager to work for the local aristocracy. Quite a problem when a virulent, fatal epidemic stalks the land.

The story may slow down occasionally, but Sarah's ability to turn the tension up to eleven when she needs to means that we aren't shifting in our seats for long. Suspicions abound, one theory being very close to a Conan Doyle although we don't discover the truth until the end.

It's dark and there's gore with a tone similar to Cadfael including moments of dry wit that bring unexpected smiles. There are also plenty of suspects and a couple of delicious baddies. I actually spotted who-dunnit very early on. However the why was totally out of the blue and knocked my socks off (figuratively).

Talking of knocking socks off, Sarah tops and tails her novel with a very clever literary device By the time we realise what she's done, what we understand more than we did at the beginning and the anticipated horror of what comes next is highly effective.

I love Oswald, Peter and the way in which Sarah not only enables us to experience the fear, suspicion and customs but how she makes them work for her. It's therefore great news that good old Hodder have signed SD Sykes up for a further two books, enabling her to draw out those loose ends she dangles enticingly throughout The Plague Land, knowing we're going to be coming back for seconds and, indeed, thirds.

(Thank you Hodder & Stoughton for providing us with a copy for review.)

Further Reading: If this appeals then go for the whole Plague crime experience as we're betting you'll also enjoy Plague by CC Humphreys.

Buy Plague Land by SD Sykes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Plague Land by SD Sykes at Amazon.co.uk.


Buy Plague Land by SD Sykes at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Plague Land by SD Sykes at Amazon.com.


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