Plague Land: A Novel, by S.D. Sykes, (Pegasus Crime), 336 pages
A historical mystery with the word plague in the title and a cover featuring a painting by Bruegel the Elder—who could resist? Plague Land is a great read on multiple levels: a solid mystery, a detailed depiction of life in rural England in the mid-1300s, and also a study of the role of Plague in reshaping the political and social order of the time.
For the first third or so of this novel, I thought I was reading something pretty good, but not necessarily great. Later in my reading, I realized that Plague Land was the first thing I reached for when I unexpectedly awoke at 6 a.m. On a Saturday. It takes a special novel to trump an extra few hours of sleep on the weekend.
The narrator and central character, Oswald de Lacy, a third son destined for life as a monk, is called home as lord of the manor after his father and two older brothers are struck down by Plague. Not long after his return home, a murder is uncovered. Oswald, an agnostic who nonetheless was comfortable with his life in the monastery, is already having enough trouble stepping into his unexpected new role. Then the local priest starts stirring up the community claiming the murder is the work of cynocephalae, demon-possessed, dog-headed men.
At first Oswald is something of a cypher. He tells his story, but shares little of his inner life, so while readers are engaged by events, they feel at arm’s distance from him. But slowly Oswald’s actions begin to speak for him, and as readers learn more about his world-view he becomes increasingly interesting.
Though the plot is less complex, this novel reminds me (in a good way) of Eco’s The Name of the Rose. A young postulant who remains innocent of the “ways of the world” is troubled by the new view of humanity he’s gaining. His mentor, in this case the apothecary at the monastery where Oswald’s been living, tries to interpret the world for him, simultaneously protecting and enlightening him.
I bought this book for the cover, and I have no regrets. Sykes’ blend of puzzle, history, and analysis makes for fascinating reading.