Plague Land

Plague LandPlague Land by S.D. Sykes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Setting: England, Kent, Somershill (fictional manor and rural village)
Time: 1350, two years after the plague has ravaged the country killing half the population.

Chapter One: “It was a hot summer’s morning in June of this year when I first saw them – advancing towards Somershill like a band of ragged players. I would tell you they were a mob, except their numbers were so depleted that a gaggle would be a better description. And I would tell you I knew their purpose in coming here, but I had taken to hiding in the manor house and keeping my nose in a book. At their head was John of Cornwall, a humourless clenched-fist of a man, whose recent appointment to parish priest rested purely upon his still being alive.”

Criticized for being too modern in tone, it was a style that worked for me. It gave a breezy, humorous counterbalance to the dark and macabre time period. Oswald is an anomaly in his time – an atheist and rational thinker with a tendency towards what today would be Zen Buddhism. As the author pointed out in a historical note “there is evidence of unbelief from those times – though it is difficult to gauge the true extent of this, as you were likely to have kept any scepticism to yourself. But even if doubts were rare, impiety certainly was not.” It worked for me, and I think actually makes the Middle Ages perhaps a little more accessible to modern readers. The historical details were otherwise spot on, with all the filth, superstition, and brutality. The black humor and over-the-top characters made me think of a television sit-com. I think it would translate very well to film or television. The mystery was satisfying, even if Oswald seems a bit slow at times, with a nice twist at the end. I definitely look forward to more in the series.

Book description: Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somershill Manor. Despatched to a monastery at the age of seven, sent back at seventeen when his father and two older brothers are killed by the Plague, Oswald has no experience of running an estate. He finds the years of pestilence and neglect have changed the old place dramatically, not to mention the attitude of the surviving peasants. Yet some things never change. Oswald’s mother remains the powerful matriarch of the family, and his sister Clemence simmers in the background, dangerous and unmarried. Before he can do anything, Oswald is confronted by the shocking death of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious village priest claims that Alison was killed by a band of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is nonsense, but proving it—by finding the real murderer—is quite a different matter. Every step he takes seems to lead Oswald deeper into a dark maze of political intrigue, family secrets and violent strife.

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