The butcher bird by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy is again confronted with a gruesome murder on his Somershill estate. A baby is found impaled in a thorn bush. The suspicion falls onto John Barrow, a mentally ill man from the village who is said to have caused a large ‘butcher bird’ to escape from his dead wife’s coffin. Oswald gives the man protection, but when his sister’s two stepdaughters disappear, the villagers ask for his head. Meanwhile, the plague has caused his peasants to move to other villages for better wages, while the king forbids Oswald to give a raise.

The Butcher Bird starts a few months after the end of Plague land. At first, it seems like a straightforward murder mystery. A young baby, Catherine Tulley, is found dead and people claim to have witnessed a large bird taking it from its cradle. Soon there is talk of a so-called ‘butcher bird’. Oswald dismisses this as pure fabrication and is looking for the real culprit.

But there is more to the story than this murder alone, there are a lot of other plot lines that intertwine. I definitely recommend reading Plague Land first because some plot lines return. There’s the disappearance of the De Caburn sisters, his sister Clemence giving birth to a son Henry (a new heir for Versey Castle) and the fact that his work force is leaving the village. Eventually, Oswald travels to London, where we get a wonderful picture of this overcrowded, dirty and dangerous city in the 14th century.

In the middle of the novel, I thought to have worked out some things and was even a bit disappointed by some scenes, but Sykes still managed to surprise me in the end. The book felt more mature than I had thought at first. This is a light and entertaining series set in a dark age, but I loved how some more timeless themes were added. Sykes really manages to develop a strong historical setting. I’ll definitely continue this series. The next book ‘City of masks’ will bring us to Venice, a whole different setting.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you have other historical mystery recommendations?

Books infested by the plague

Ever since the outbreak of covid, people have been talking about some other major pandemics in history such as the Spanish flu in 1918 and ‘the plague’ that was raging through Europe in the Middle Ages. There are different forms of the plague. The one we usually refer to is the bubonic plague which causes black ‘buboes’ or swollen lymph nodes on the body. In the 14th century there was a huge outbreak of this bubonic plague and it is recorded as the most fatal pandemic ever. This pandemic is therefore also called ‘The Black Death’ or ‘The Great Mortality’. Ever since we went in lockdown, I began reading some historical novels that were set during the plague years (in the 14th century mostly). It soothed me to read about people struggling with a strange disease that is now in the 21st century under control on a global level.

I decided to make a list of historical fiction books around this topic, for everyone who also wants to feel better (or worse, it depends on how you feel when reading about people dying 😅).

World without end by Ken Follett

In World without end we follow four youngsters in medieval Kingsbridge. It’s an epic story set in the 14th century, so off course the plague also arrives in Kingsbridge. One of the characters, Caris, is a nun who tries to make sense of this disease and believes in seperating the sick from the healthy and wearing a cloth before your mouth when tending the sick to not breathe in the same air. But the prior finds these views heretic and this will cost many lives.

This is a huge book with a lot more themes than the plague, but it gives you a sense of how the people tried to make sense of who died and who survived this strange disease.

Read my review about World without end

The last hours by Minette Walters

This is certainly my least favourite novel on this list. The story is about a small village in Dorsetshire where a mysterious disease arrives and lady Anne forbids anyone to leave or enter the town. Not even her husband. The story is set during the first few year of the pandemic and this makes for a nice introduction into how devastating it raged throughout England. But it also heavily focuses on the characters and events happening within the town and I must admit that I was a bit bored with them. There is a sequel which is called ‘The turn of midnight’ and follows the same characters.

Read my review about the last hours

Plague land by S.D. Sykes

The title seems to incline that the plague is heavily featured in this historical mystery and in some way that is true. But actually, it is set a few years after the pandemic but you can still see the effects of it weighing heavily on the people. And on the lord of Somershill, Oswald De Lacy, who was the third son destined to become a monk but after the death of his father and two older brothers he needs to return home to become lord.

The black death was one of the biggest causes of the abolition of serfdom in medieval England. So many people died that there was almost nobody anymore to plough to fields. In fear of starvation, lords began to offer better conditions for workers and even distribute land among farmers.

Read my review of plague land

The last adventures of H. by Sarah Burton

This is the first novel I mention not set in the 14th century. It’s set in 17th century London during some of the most dramatic years in the city’s history. We all know about the devastating Great Fire of 1666, but did you know that in 1665 there was a major bubonic plague epidemic in the heart of London? This plague killed over a quarter of the city’s inhabitants within 18 months. It was the last major outbreak of the plague on English territory. The strange adventures of H. is an entertaining story about a young girl who tries to survive in a world full of men.

Read my review of the strange adventures of H.

A company of liars by Karen Maitland

I thought I had read more books featuring the plague, there is one more that is set in 15th century Italy that I read ages ago but it’s a German book (I read it in the Dutch translation) and not translated to English. So to add a fifth, I decided to go for Karen Maitland’s ‘A company of liars’ with the subtitle ‘a novel of the plague’. I’ve read her other book set in the 14th century, ‘The vanishing witch‘, which takes place after the pandemic. Her novels include dark characters, a bit of magic and a lot of filth.

Do you have any other recommendations featuring the plague?

World without end by Ken Follett

In the forest just outside Kingsbridge four young children witness a battle between the young knight Thomas Langley and his two pursuers. Langley is saved and decides to take the vows in Kingsbridge priory. In the coming decades, Caris, Gwenda, Merthin and Ralph all try to find their way in the world, never talking about the incident again. Caris desperately wants to become a doctor after her mother’s death but only monks can study medicine. The younger brother Ralph becomes a squire into the household of a knight while the older Merthin is left behind to be a carpenter’s apprentice. And Gwenda is trying to make end’s meet while pursuing an impossible love.

This is an epic story following the descendants of the characters we know from ‘Pillars of the earth’ through the cruel 14th century. The fictitious town of Kingsbridge is again the setting of the book where the cathedral is still towering above everything but the first flaws are discovered in the structure of the building.

Edward II has just been deposed and possibly murdered by his queen Isabella of France in favor of her son Edward III. A war with France is looming around the corner. Serfs are working the fields for their lords. If the harvest is poor, many of them will die of starvation. And then there’s a pandemic which we now refer to as the Black Death. These really are the Dark Ages. Full of war, filth and disease.

If you’ve recently read Pillars, you will discover the characters of World without end are very alike. A character is either bad, like Ralph or Godwyn, or good, like picture perfect Merthin. There seems no in between. Caris and Merthin remind us of Jack and Aliena, but in some way these characters felt more lifelike. Especially Gwenda who suffers a lot, she was my favourite of the lot.

I read Pillars years ago, so I didn’t mind the similarities. Follett uses the same recipe but it works for me. I was absorbed in this cleverly built medieval story about four people and their families. I read Follett for the first time in English but his writing is so easy to read that I was looking forward to my reading time at night. It’s a big book but it didn’t feel like that at all. I wish there were more books like this.

The next book in the series ‘A column of fire’ takes place during Tudor times and is already sitting on my shelves.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Have you read anything by Ken Follett?

Plague Land by S.D. Sykes

Oswald De Lacy returns to his elderly home at Somershill manor after the plague killed his father, his two older brothers and half of their tenants. At eighteen, he’s to become lord of the estate. But raised in a monastery, he’s untrained in the many responsibilities such an office holds. When a young girl is found murdered in the woods and the local village priest is talking about dog hounds and the devil, Oswald starts looking for the real murderer. A few days later, a second girl goes missing.

Plague land is the first book in the Somershill Manor Mystery series and introduces us to Oswald the Lacy, the third son of a noble family in Kent. It’s 1350 and the Black Death has been killing peasant and lord alike. The whole estate now turns to Oswald as their lord and after the body of Alison Starvecrow is found, Oswald is charged with finding the culprit (as the constable himself has also died from the plague).

Oswald is inexperienced in many things but gets help from his mentor brother Peter, who has a drinking problem. There’s a wide range of other characters, such as Joan, the local village whore, Oswald’s talkative mother and his sour sister Clemence. Apart from the characters, the medieval atmosphere also comes alive. You can smell the filth and disease from the pages. There’s a lot of superstition and talk of the devil and witches. These really were the Dark Ages.

I had my suspicions regarding the murder mystery but there are enough turns and twists to keep you hooked until the end when everything is revealed. This is not the best historical mystery. Sykes is no Sansom. But it’s entertaining and Oswald has a lot of potential as a main character for the coming books. He will have a lot more mysteries to solve it seems. And I’m looking forward to meet him again in ‘The butcher bird’.

Rating: 3 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Any other medieval mystery recommendations?

The last hours by Minette Walters

1348. A strange and deadly sickness kills whole villages near Dorsetsire in England. When Lady Anne of Develish hears of this so called ‘Black Death’, she decides to bring all the serfs inside the walls, much against the will of her daughter Eleanor and her Norman steward. Lady Anne even refuses her husband Sir Richard entrance when he comes back from a journey and carries the sickness with him. But while in quarantine the social order between serfs and their lords is overturned. A dramatic event and the fear of starvation forces a few of them to leave, unsure about what they will find outside.

I picked this one up in the library hoping to discover an excellent and bulky historical story. Reading about a pandemic seemed appropriate now and the Black Death is one of these almost mythical illnesses we still don’t know a lot about today.

We meet Lady Anne of Develish who was educated by nuns and has different views on social class and hygiene. She is much beloved by her serfs but hated by her daughter Eleanor because she favors the bastard serf Thaddeus Thurkell.

I had hoped this book would tell me more about the plague, but actually the focus is on the little community of Develish and its underlying secrets. I did not really like one of the main characters. Especially Eleanor is the kind of person you want to be the first to perish from this new disease :D. There is also a strong sexual abuse theme and I’m still not sure what to think about that storyline.

Somewhere in the middle of the novel Thaddeus goes outside with five companions looking for food. And from that moment I started scanning through the pages as I found their journey quite boring. I couldn’t get all the names and wasn’t interested in the boys’ childish worries. I did read the parts within Develish as I liked to read about the social order during this time and how the quarantine turned it all over.

The novel has an open ending, the story is not finished yet. Luckily, the sequel ‘the turn of midnight’ is already out, but I won’t read it. I believe I was just too disappointed about the story itself and expected a more gripping read about the devastating consequences of a pandemic.

Rating: 2.5 out of 5.

Have you read a good novel about the Black Death?