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Monday 30 November 2015

‘Plague Land’ by S D Sykes

Published by Hodder & Stoughton,
21 May 2015,
ISBN: 978-1-444-78578-4 PB)

Times were hard in the fourteenth century, even for the well-to-do. During the first couple of decades the Black Death was rampant, leaving villages and estates derelict at worst and short of labour at best. Even after the epidemic abated, dirt and infection flourished and water was rarely safe to drink. Women were chattels, to be used, abused and married off at the will of husbands and fathers. Religion and superstition vied for supremacy in the minds of the uneducated masses.

This is the world S D Sykes’s debut novel Plague Land brings to life – and very effectively she does it, with a lot of stomach-churning description and touches of humour. At the centre of the narrative is nineteen-year-old Oswald de Lacy, lord of the manor of Somershill against all expectation after the plague saw off all the other male members of his family. Recalled from the abbey where he had expected to live out his life, Oswald finds himself not only running the estate but also investigating the murder of one of his tenants, a teenage girl who, only days earlier, had sought him to ask for his help.

Oswald finds himself at odds with almost everyone around him: his mother and sister, the local priest, the village whore who finds herself accused of the crime, the lord of a neighbouring manor. His only allies are a monk who accompanied him from the abbey, and a beautiful young woman whom he rescues from a gang of rapists only to place her in the demanding hands of his mother.

The plot is twisty, with an unexpected resolution, but Sykes’s greatest strength is undoubtedly her portrayal of medieval life in all its squalor and hardship. She also has a deft hand with the folk who inhabit her world, and peoples her narrative with some memorable characters, notably Oswald himself, who is a mix of well-meaning naivety, self-doubt and unexpected competence: better educated and more intelligent than most of the people around him, he sees past the constraints of religion, superstition and convention which inhibit members of all social classes.

The main female characters, despite the restrictions placed on them, are a feisty bunch. Oswald’s mother and sister try to rule the roost; Joan the whore refuses to kowtow to  any man; the daughters of a neighbouring manor are positively feral.

S D Sykes is a new name to historical crime fiction, but on this showing she’ll be around for some time to come. A follow-up to Plague Land is already promised, and a series could well follow.
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick
S D Sykes  has lived in Somerset, London, Manchester and now in the Weald of Kent. She says that she has always been a storyteller, even as a child - writing her first book at the age of six and insisting it be typed up and bound. After a career writing copy for brochures, direct mail, and company newsletters, she started Plague Land after attending the course in novel writing at literary agents Curtis Brown. Her influences are gothic literature, nature, history and my large and mildly eccentric family.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning. She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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