Review of “Plague Land” by S.D. Sykes

This book, set in 1350, is the beginning of a new historical fiction mystery series. Oswald de Lacy, 18, had been working as a novice in the hospital of a remote Benedictine monastery under the guidance of his long-time mentor, Brother Peter. After the death of the Abbot from the Black Plague, Oswald returned home, bringing Brother Peter with him. Since Oswald’s father and two older brothers had also been taken by the plague, Oswald was now to be Lord of the Somershill estate, as well as the town Constable.

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Upon his return, Oswald is immediately beset upon by a host of problems: he has more than a thousand acres that need tending, revenues to be raised, and taxes to be collected, but a large proportion of the villagers died from the plague. Moreover, a disreputable local priest, John of Cornwall, comes to announce that a young girl has been found dead in the forest, and he is convinced it was at the hands of The Cynocephalus, an alleged dog-headed beast that did the work of the Devil. Cornwall is whipping up the local populace into a frenzy of fear (which conveniently results in their purchasing religious relics from John of Cornwall to protect them).

Oswald doesn’t believe in any beast and Peter encourages him to find the actual murderer. Oswald tries to abjure superstition as well as religion, and claims to believe in “science.” [The Oxford English Dictionary records the first use of the word science as having occurred in 1350, and Oswald is very unlikely to have been familiar with it. If anything, he would have used the term “natural philosophy.”]

In any event, Oswald, endlessly ordered about by his mother and older sister (in spite of the fact that women at that time had no power whatsoever), suspects one person after another, falls in InstaLove, almost gets killed several times, and finally “solves” the crime after almost getting hit on the head with the answer.

Discussion: I had a number of problems with this book. First of all, there is the “historical” aspect of this book. I thought the author did an excellent job in portraying the different ways in which squalor, ill health, bad food, and vice characterized people’s lives at this time. But she was inconsistent. Women were sometimes utterly powerless, and at other times seemed right out of the 21st Century. Oswald in particular was not only an atheist (not unheard of at this time, certainly), but a believer in “science” which just wasn’t likely at that time, especially with respect to both religion and medicine. In addition, although he and Peter lived at a small obscure monastery, Peter was able to teach him geometry, in spite of Euclid having been available only at large universities. (There was, of course, no printing press until 1450, and no indication Peter had benefitted from a privileged education elsewhere.) Moreover, Oswald had, in his own family library, copies of both Summa Theologica by Thomas Aquinas and Roger Bacon’s Opus Minus. At that time, books were made at great expense by hand and only to be found in the possession of kings, universities, large churches, or large monasteries.

My second problem was with the characterizations. Normally, I don’t like to compare writers, but this book, albeit set in the 14th Century, begs comparison with The Siege Winter by Arianna Franklin and Samantha Norman. In that story, you also have a medieval setting, an evil and abusive member of the clergy, a crime, political machinations, and an exploration of the administration of a medieval estate. Yet the history in that book is much more accurate, the pacing and tension more consistent, and the characters much more richly layered and memorable. One can also compare the Brother Cadfael series by Ellis Peters, another historical mystery series that takes place in the 12th Century. Brother Cadfael, bright and resourceful, looks for natural solutions to illnesses and crimes in a much more century-appropriate manner. In this story, Oswald is wimpy and dumb, the women in his family are execrable, the local politics are tawdry and uninteresting, and there is really no one I would want to hang around with for more than one book.

Evaluation: While some reviewers have lauded this book, I found it historically questionable in parts with not very compelling characters.

Rating: 2.5/5

Published by Pegasus Crime, and imprint of Pegasus Books, 2015

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4 Responses to Review of “Plague Land” by S.D. Sykes

  1. Rita K says:

    Guess it isn’t a good book, if you don’t like it.

  2. Rachel says:

    That’s what you get for being so darn knowledgeable! LOL I would have never realized there were so many inconsistencies .

  3. Beth F says:

    Ugh. Your problems would have been my problems too. I love the Cadfael books!

  4. Shame! But, not a shame for me, because I in fact am loath to start new mystery serieses anyway because of what a big investment they are. So it is actually better for me to be able to weed mystery serieses OUT.

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