Oswald de Lacy

(creator: S D Sykes)

Oswald de Lacy had two older brothers so never expected to become Lord of Somershill Manor in West Kent. Instead he was despatched at the age of seven to a remote Benedictine monastery "where the lay brothers had taken care of the Abbey farm, leaving novices to spend their time in mass, class, or silent contemplation. My only practical skills were setting arms, draining wounds and shaving the other novices' heads." But then his father and brothers died from the plague that had returned in 1349 and he was recalled home to become the new Lord, a task for which he was totally unprepared.

He is a rather shy and naive 18 year old who has to struggle with his new role. He is a boy who "leans towards rational thought. He is also a sceptic, even an atheist." For him, "the Devil was as improbable as God." When confronted with the plague, he asks, "What had praying achieved in the last two years? The great plague had killed without discrimination." Perhaps it's just as well that he never had to take Holy Orders. It is he who tells the story throughout.

SD Sykes lives in the Weald of Kent, together with her family and numerous animals. After graduating from Manchester University, she had a career writing copy for brochures, direct mail, and company newsletters, and having earned a MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam University, she attending a course in novel writing at literary agents Curtis Brown which inspired her to write Plague Land, the first of a series of three novels to be commissioned by Hodder and Stoughton. She has also written for radio and developed screenplays.

She says that her particular passion is social history about how the ordinary person lived. She puts a lot of effort into research, both desk research but "perhaps more importantly, by visiting as many medieval sites as possible". She admits to a particular interest in the more gruesome and macabre side of medieval life.

Plague Land (2014)
Plague Land
starts in November 1350 and describes how 18 year old Oswald de Lacy had unexpectedly found himself the new Lord of Somershill Manor. Years of pestilence and neglect had altered the estate dramatically, but his mother remained the powerful matriarch of the family, and his unmarried sister Clemence was always there in the background, forever jealous of him.

Oswald's only friend seems to be Brother Peter who had helped him at the monastery, showing him an affection "which turned me from a spoilt child into a quiet and thoughtful boy", and who had accompanied him on his return home - and yet even their relationship became distinctly problematic. And there were problems with servants too for they "were often more haughty than the family they served". Half the village had died from the plague and now "my surviving tenants were suddenly demanding higher wages to work on my demesne fields." He could not help wondering whether "the monastery might have offered me more than this. With the nobility of my birth and the death of so many other brothers, I could have risen quickly to become abbot. Instead I was given Somershill - a gift that had smelled as sweet as the bloom of a rose, but which, on closer inspection, was barbed with thorns."

Oswald is confronted by the vicious murder of a young woman, Alison Starvecrow. The ambitious if ill educated village priest, John of Cornwall, claims that Alison was the victim of demonic dog-headed beasts. 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. It turns out that his father had had "a dozen bastards about the estate". And then the body of another girl is found, and Oswald meets up with Mirabel, a beautiful but (according to his mother) highly unsuitable village girl with whom he falls in love.

So, one way or another, plenty happens. At one point Oswald even has to hide in a plague pit. At another, he is arrested. However, the melodramatic conclusion, although certainly full of surprises (for which we have not been sufficiently prepared), is far from convincing.

Otherwise, the story is told in a very down-to-earth, tough and interesting way, yet it did not always engage me. Oswald himself isn't always a very attractive character, as when he tells us, "Madness came upon me. I will admit it. ***** was a liar, a rapist, and a murderer. He deserved to die. I struck him about the head until I found that I enjoyed hurting him. The crack of wood against his skull satisfied me. His calls of pain pleased me. The blood that surged from his mouth thrilled me. I felt elated, free of censure and restraint."

However, as Oswald has no remaining religious faith, he can hardly be called a clerical detective (even by me!), so I shall not be reviewing the later books in the series.

The author has her own website and there is an interview with her on the Curtis Brown site.

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The UK cover (above) is stark but quite effective.
The USA cover (below) uses a Breugel the Elder painting to suggest real gloom and misery.
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