Monday, 22 September 2014

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

review by Maryom

18 year old Oswald de Lacy has grown up with the expectation of becoming a monk. With two older brothers, he wasn't needed on the family estate. But now the Black death has changed all that. With his father and both brothers dead, Oswald must assume the role of Lord of Somerhill Manor - a role for which he seems totally unsuited. He has little or no knowledge of how to run his estate or when to sow or harvest crops, depending heavily on his former tutor brother Peter.
There's a more pressing matter to deal with first - a young woman, Alice Starvecrow, has been murdered and the village priest insists it was the work of demonic dog-headed men. Oswald is certain this is pure superstitious nonsense...but to prove that he must find the real, all too human, killer.

Plague Land takes a gripping murder mystery and places it in a well imagined period setting. Oswald's estate, like most of the country, has been devastated by the plague with fields lying abandoned as there are no longer enough peasants to work them. The peasants, on their part, have discovered that their lack of numbers gives them a bargaining tool they never previously had, and the old feudal order seems to be crumbling. Narrating the story from Oswald's point of view, as he struggles to come to terms with his new role, allows the author to explain the situation and system without falling back on a long history lesson.

Oswald also has his share of personal problems - mainly in the shape of his scatter-brained mother, who's still determined she should have her say in the way things are run, and his sister Clemence who in her twenties is considered an old maid unlikely to ever marry; her desperation leads to to a most unsuitable match that only brings more trouble for poor Oswald.

Against this backdrop, Oswald attempts to track down a cunning murderer, while the bodies continue to pile up. Having no idea at all of what he should do, he fumbles and stumbles his way along, often walking unwittingly into danger. The unwinding plot has enough twists and turns to keep anyone guessing, though some clues are more obvious to the reader than to Oswald. Like him, the reader immediately discounts the 'demon killers' explanation, but it's easy to see how the priest plays on the villagers religious beliefs and general ignorance, manipulating them for his own ends.

This is a great start to a new historical crime series and I'm definitely looking forward to more.

Maryom's review - 4 stars
Publisher - Hodder & Stoughton
Genre - adult fiction, historical crime

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