Tuesday 14 April 2015

Plague Land - S.D Sykes

I'm a sucker for a bit of a medieval mystery, they tend to play into my macabre interest in faith, death and a society that is so startlingly different from our own. So a murder mystery which draws so strongly on medieval superstition as well as the changing attitudes towards death brought about by the trauma of the Great Mortality would seem to be right up my street. Not to mention that this is simply a great debut novel. 

This is a well plotted and nicely written historical murder mystery set in 1349. Our narrator is Oswald de Lacey, a young lord who has been called back from his monastery to take up responsibility for his manor following the deaths of his father and two brothers. In fact he has returned, in a totally unprepared state, to a demesne that has been ravaged by the Great Mortality. His tenant, villein and cottager population has been decimated by the plague, and he has been left with a manor where he does not know if his rents will cover his obligations to his Earl. On top of this there is friction within his own household from his quite batty Mother and frustrated, bitter Sister. His situation is made worse when two of his remaining tenants are murdered.
The story follows his attempts to prove that the murderer is human and not a cynocephali, a dog-headed demon beast. His adversaries include the illiterate pardoner come parish priest and his neighbouring lord who covets the de Lacey land and workers. 

The social and economic status of the whole country is falling apart and this is really well entwined with the murder mystery. We have some great social agitation from John of Cornwall, the parish priest. This is a man who is only barely qualified for his role as spiritual guide for the community, unable to speak or read Latin and concocting the words of the Mass as he goes along; however with all the 'good' priests dead of plague men like John are all the church has left to offer. His removal of the worker's from de Lacey in search of higher wages is historically accurate in it's essence. People did go seeking higher wages and better conditions in a market where labour was suddenly short. The author has managed to create a situation though, where despite our knowledge that serfdom is basically wrong, we are rooting for the peasants to return to Oswald. The manipulation of the peasants and their insistence that cynocephali are real contrasts nicely with Oswald's rational and educated stance on the subject, although Sykes has not given him attitudes that are out of place in the mid 14th century setting. Oswald is quite capable of believing in things that seem bizarre to modern sensibilities.  The author has included a good few twists and turns, some well written characters and some really good period detail as well as a nice bit of wry wit to create a really enjoyable story.  The final twist is simply great and leaves us wondering just what actually happened in the Scarecrow's cottage, a nicely inconclusive ending that keeps the reader thinking after the story is done. I managed to read the whole thing in one day, pretty much because I didn't want to put the book down.

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