by S. D. Sykes
Neither Oswald de Lacy nor anyone who knew him expected him to become the Lord of Somershill Manor.
But when his father and two older brothers die of the plague in 1349, Oswald is thrown headlong into a role he has neither the training nor the temperament for.
Sent to a Benedictine monastery at seven to become a monk, Oswald now finds himself in charge of 1,000 acres of farm and pastureland, a village whose inhabitants owe him servitude, a manorial court, collecting the king’s taxes and providing the king with soldiers in time of war.
The last thing he needs as he struggles to keep Somershill running is a murder. But when a band of ragged villagers, led by parish priest John of Cornwall, show up at his door talking of a dead body in the forest and demanding action, he has no choice.
Inspection of the site and the corpse reveals the body of young Alison Starvecrow. John of Cornwall insists the girl was killed by Cynocephali, dog-headed men who do the Devil’s work. His ability to frighten the villagers with images of roving bands of dog-headed devils keeps his side business of selling holy relics brisk.
While Oswald applies reason and logic to his investigation, he comes up with few clues pointing to a killer. He also finds himself in a struggle with Cornwall for the loyalty of the villagers. Then a second murdered girl is found, Matilda Starvecrow, Alison’s sister.
Sykes does an excellent job of bringing a nearly 670-year-old world to life — complete with sights, sounds and smells. This is a world between epidemics of bubonic plague. The balance of power between the landed gentry and the peasants is changing. With so many people dead, the peasants now have the power to take their labor to the highest bidder. This is a rough and ragged world.
Sykes’ focus on the medieval world is stronger than her murder mystery. There are very few clues, and Oswald is an inexperienced, naive detective. He thrashes around pointing fingers and making arrests. It’s hard to believe that he’ll find the killer. Sykes withholds information about the murderer making it virtually impossible for a reader to identify the surprising culprit.
Despite the seriousness of the historical period, Sykes writes with a light, nearly humorous touch. The characters — from the inexperienced Oswald to his frustrated, shrewish sister Clemence to his demanding and canny mother — are interesting and well worth following into the other books of the series.
This is a story in the vein of:
- Ann Swinfen’s Oxford Medieval Mysteries, featuring bookseller Nicholas Elyot living in Oxford in the mid-1300s after the plague years and roughly the same time as Oswald de Lacy. The first book in this series is The Bookseller’s Tale.
- Peter Tremayne’s Sister Fidelma mysteries, about a crime-solving Irish nun in the mid-600s.
- Ellis Peters’ Chronicles of Brother Cadfael, which were set between 1137 and 1145 when King Stephen and Empress Maud were fighting for the crown. Brother Cadfael is Benedictine monk who entered the monastery later in life after being a soldier and sailor. Besides being a skilled observer of human nature, he is a talented herbalist.
- Margaret Frazer’s Dame Frevisse mysteries, which deal with a nun living in a small Oxfordshire convent and cover a period from 1431 to 1452.
Plague Land was published in the United States in 2015 and then followed by these additions to the series:
- The Butcher Bird (2016)
- City of Masks (2017)