Summary and book reviews of Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Plague Land

by S.D. Sykes

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes
  • Critics' Opinion:

    Readers' Opinion:

     Not Yet Rated
  • First Published:
    Feb 2015, 336 pages
    Paperback:
    Apr 2016, 336 pages

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Book Reviewed by:
Jennifer G Wilder

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About this Book

Book Summary

In this chilling historical mystery, young girls go missing from a medieval English village and Lord Oswald de Lacy must find the killer before tragedy strikes again.

Oswald de Lacy was never meant to be the Lord of Somerhill 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.

And then the body of another girl is found.

Sarah Sykes brilliantly evokes the landscape and people of medieval Kent in this thrillingly suspenseful debut.

Prologue
Somershill Manor, November 1350

If I preserve but one memory at my own death, it shall be the burning of the dog-headed beast. The fire blazed in the field beside the church – its white smoke rising skyward in a twisted billow. Its odor acrid and choking.

'Let me through.' I shouted to their backs. At first they didn't respond, only turning to look at me when I grabbed at their tunics. Perhaps they had forgotten who I was? A young girl asked me to lift her so she might see the sinner die. A ragged boy tried to sell me a faggot of fat for half a penny.

And then a wail cut through the air. It was thin and piteous and came from within the pyre itself – but pushing my way through to the flames, I found no curling and blackened body tied to a stake. No sooty chains or iron hoops. Only the carcass of a bull, with the fire now licking at the brown and white hair of its coat.

The beast had not been skinned and its mouth was jammed open with a thick ...

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Reviews

BookBrowse Review

BookBrowse

Part of the pleasure in a historical mystery, of course, comes from the ambience of the time and place, and Oswald is a lyrical observer of the local color of his world, whether he's waxing poetic about the bucolic landscape ("the rain gave way to a fan of sunlight") or the texture of a plague pit ("creaking and bony mattress of death"). Sykes gives us plenty of medieval terminology to enjoy, including litanies of lovely-sounding archaic herbs with aromatic and medical uses. The scenery is richly imagined too – the manor houses and village hovels alike have seen better days. As pleasurable as Sykes' sense of the comic is, it feels at times as though the light tone of the narrative undermines the weight of the sinister events unfolding. The nefarious characters are at risk of seeming more like caricatures than actual threats, and the suspense is more tickling than spine-tingling.   (Reviewed by Jennifer G Wilder).

Full Review (710 words).

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Media Reviews

Kirkus Reviews

Sykes' debut, the first of a planned series, immerses the reader in the filth and ignorance of medieval Kent, presents a puzzling mystery and introduces a hero who grows in stature as his problems increase.

Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Set in 1350, British author Sykes's debut provides everything a reader would want in a historical mystery: a gripping plot, vivid language, living and breathing characters, and an immersive depiction of the past.

Library Journal

Starred Review. With political intrigue and the social barriers of the Middle Ages in play, Sykes adds an intricate and intriguing debut to the ever-widening pool of medieval-era mysteries. Thrilling plot twists and layered characters abound in this rich tale of murder and mystery in 14th-century Kent.

The Independent (UK)

There's a nice, cliché-free sharpness to Sykes' writing that suggests a medieval Raymond Chandler at work, and there are no phony celebrations of the peasantry or earth-mothers thrusting herbal concoctions down grateful throats.

The Bookbag (UK)

It's dark and there's gore with a tone similar to Cadfael including moments of dry wit that bring unexpected smiles.

Shots (Blog)

Dark and disturbing, but is written so well that we are carried forward, eager to solve the enigmas.

From First Page to Last (Blog)

The mystery is engaging and I found the whole subject of the Plague and the feudal system fascinating. It's a period of history I wasn't familiar with but one I'd love to investigate further.

Medievalists (Blog)

If you're looking for a well written and engaging book set in the Middle Ages, or you happen to like thrillers, mysteries and "whodunits," then this is your cup of tea.

For Winter Nights (Blog)

Plague Land is an extraordinary debut novel - confident and clever, bringing the reader so close to the history it evokes.

Author Blurb Martine Bailey, author of An Appetite for Violets
There are plot twists aplenty. Plague Land is a quest to rebuild identity in an apocalyptic world, a theme that makes this new medieval series one I will be sure to follow.

Author Blurb Jake Woodhouse, author of The Amsterdam Quartet
Plague Land is a gripping historical crime thriller, an engaging coming-of-age story and a richly textured evocation of 14th Century Kent. I was totally hooked.

Author Blurb Antonia Hodgson, author of The Devil in The Marshalsea
Plague Land is a fascinating historical crime novel about a world turned upside down, inhabited by a rich cast of characters. A terrific debut and a wonderful start to a brand-new series.

Author Blurb Rebecca Mascull, author of Song of the Sea Maid
A compelling murder mystery with a stark yet poetic style [and] a vivid sense of place.

Reader Reviews

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Beyond the Book

Plague-Era Medicine

As Oswald, the hero of Plague Land tells it, most fourteenth-century medical practices were hit-or-miss experiments, with the misses resulting in dead patients and blood everywhere. The spread of the Great Mortality (Bubonic plague, or as it was later known, "The Black Death") inspired all manner of medical trial and error, as Europe struggled to stay ahead of the speedy and deadly epidemic.

Dioscorides' Materia Medica, c. 1334 copy in Arabic, describes medicinal features of cumin and dill Herbal medicine was often the first, and the last, line of defense available. Herbs were expected to function in a basic capacity as a sort of aromatherapeutic defense against contagion. If sickness came from bad air, a pomander or posy of good-smelling stuff like cloves, lemon balm, or mint just might keep it at bay. If you couldn't smell it, ...

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