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The death of Wat Tyler, who led a peasant revolt in 1381. Richard II is the crowned horseman addressing the crowd. (Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f. 175; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

The death of Wat Tyler, who led a peasant revolt in 1381. Richard II is the crowned horseman addressing the crowd. (Library Royal MS 18.E.i-ii f. 175; courtesy Wikimedia Commons)

Review: Plague Land, by S. D. Sykes

Pegasus, 2015. 336 pages. $26

Imagine a family in which a selectively deaf mother floats in and out of lucidity; the daughter never smiles and spends all her time listening at keyholes; and the younger son, the man of the house at age eighteen, isn’t up to the job. Sounds like today’s dysfunctional family, right?

Well, in S. D. Sykes’s hands, the year is 1350, the place is Kent, and the boy, Oswald de Lacy, is the new lord of the manor, Somershill. Oswald can’t tame his late father’s horse, doesn’t know the first thing about sheep-shearing, and has little or no authority over his tenants. That’s because he’s spent his young life at a monastery, studying Roger Bacon and Aristotle, and acquiring a taste for rational thought, atheism, and surprisingly democratic ideas.

No, Plague Land isn’t a lift from Monty Python or Blackadder. It’s a well-plotted mystery and coming-of-age story, replete with credibly rendered fourteenth-century sights, sounds, and smells. A girl has been found murdered and her body mutilated, and the peasantry, incited by a demagogue priest, are all too ready to ascribe the crime to witchcraft. Oswald, pushed to investigate by his sense of right and wrong and the wishes of his confessor and lifelong tutor, Brother Peter, sets out to investigate.

Along the way, Oswald suffers many reversals and embarrassments, not least that his belief in observation and proof sets the population against him, and that he must persuade rather than command. Though this is Sykes’s first novel, she deploys the “no–and furthermore” device with great skill, increasing the obstacles in milord’s way at every turn. Nothing comes easily, and the providential accidents that rescue sleuths in lesser novels don’t happen here. Theories about whodunit change constantly (and plausibly), and Oswald can trust nobody, not even the advice of Brother Peter, whose schemes to get his protegé out of trouble constantly backfire.

All that makes good storytelling, but maybe a little too good. As Oswald remarks, he is lord of the manor, damn it, so why don’t people obey? It’s that frustration which, at the start, made me wonder whether Sykes intended a parody after all. But she’s serious, and a historical note explains her reasoning. Atheists and rational thinkers did exist in 1350, she says, though they were obviously a tiny minority. Further, the bubonic plague of the preceding years had upset the social order so drastically that tenant farmers sometimes had room to demand certain rights.

Maybe, but Plague Land stretches these notions pretty far. I accept that the plague has killed Oswald’s father and older brothers, giving the young lord his inheritance by surprise, and depleted the ranks of peasantry and servants, putting the estate in financial jeopardy. But the extent to which Oswald lacks a grip on things or can exercise a power he doesn’t feel he owns–the coming-of-age narrative–seems, well, modern.

Plague or no, I have to think that when Lord Somershill gives an order, bumbler though he may be, the peasantry should hop to. Nor should he be able to marry a commoner, which he believes he can, a startling concept in 1850, let alone 1350. Unusually sophisticated, especially for an eighteen-year-old, he’s never so confused that he doesn’t know what his feelings are, even if they war inside him. That, like the language, strikes me as too modern.

Still, Plague Land is good fun, and I gather that Sykes plans more novels about Oswald de Lacy. I’ll be interested to see how the series develops.

Disclaimer: I borrowed my reading copy of this book from the public library.