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?

Revelation by C.J. Sansom

1543. In the court of the aging Henry VIII the catholic fraction is again winning sympathy with the king. Gardiner and bishop Bonner are arresting protestants in the streets of London and Cranmer is worrying about his position. In the meantime, the king is looking for a sixth wife. He’s courting Lady Latimer, a friend of the Seymours who was recently widowed.

Matthew Shardlake receives a new case from the court of requests about a boy named Adam Kite who seems to have become mad. People talk he is possessed by the devil but Matthew and his friend Guy don’t believe so. When suddenly one of his fellow lawyers and comrades is brutally murdered, Shardlake and Barak once again are hunting a killer commissioned by Cranmer and the Seymours.

It’s no secret that I love this series. Revelation is the fourth book and in this story the topic of religion is explored. At the end of Henry VIII’s reign protestants and catholics were fighting for power. Bonner is burning protestant heretics, while at the same time the king is hunting a new wife with protestant sympathies… You can feel the unrest in the streets of London through the pages. It’s a great setting.

Shardlake again has two different cases to solve. We have the case of Adam Kite, a protestant boy who is talking about God and constantly praying. Because people believe him mad, he’s placed in the Bedlam hospital for the insane. A few days later, one of Matthew’s lawyer friends is cruelly killed in a fountain. Matthew promises his widow he will find the killer but before he knows he’s at court standing before the archbishop Cranmer and the brothers Seymour. There have been other killings and one of them is linked to Catherine Parr.

There are a few other secondary plot lines such as the relationship between Barak and Tamasin, the friendship between Matthew and Guy and Matthew’s own religious conscience which is once again tested. I did like the different stories, but the resolution around Adam Kite felt too fast and artificial. It seems Sansom especially wanted to introduce Ellen, one of the other inhabitants from the Bedlam hospital, as a character for the coming books. I also believe we will see more of Edward and Thomas Seymour.

Revolution has the disadvantage that it comes after Sovereign, which is still my favourite book from this series. But it is once again a great mystery novel in a phenomenal historical setting. I always like books that feature Catherine Parr, she was so much more than a nursemaid. Highly recommended series, but I suggest you start with the first one ‘Dissolution’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? If yes, what’s your favourite?

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 king’s evil by Andrew Taylor

In Clarendon house, the home of one of the most important courtiers of king Charles II, the body of Edward Alderley is discovered drowned in a well. Suspicion soon falls onto Cat Lovett, the daughter of a regicide, now hiding as Jane Hakesby. James Marwood is charged with the investigation of the murder by the king himself. He is determined to prove Cat’s innocence, but is she truly innocent? Since the murder, Cat has fled her home at Henrietta street.

This is the third book of Andrew Taylor’s excellent Marwood and Lovett series. I recommend to start with the first one ‘Ashes of London‘ if you want to fully comprehend everything that is happening. For example the book opens with a conversation between James Marwood and Olivia, lady Quincy whom we met in the first book. They are watching a ceremony of king Charles II where he’s healing people suffering from the king’s evil with his touch. Marwood has always been attracted to Lady Quincy so when she asks him to warn her cousin Cat Lovett that Edward Alderley wants to kill her, he does her bidding.

A few days later Edward Alderley is found murdered in a well and Cat has disappeared. Marwood is charged to go to Clarendon house to inspect the body. Lord Clarendon is the father in law of James, Duke of York, the king’s brother and one of the mightiest courtiers at the moment. Alas, Clarendon house hasn’t survived the wheel of time, otherwise I would have jumped on a train to London to visit it. It’s a great setting for this book.

It’s the first time that James Marwood really becomes entangled in the court intriges and the king’s own affairs. The effects of the Great Fire are still part of the story, but aren’t the focus of the plot this time. His relationship with Cat doesn’t become any easier. She’s still a big part of the story, but we read more chapters from Marwood in this novel.

I had never before heard about ‘the king’s evil’. This is a disease called scrofula, which is a form of tuberculosis that causes swellings in the neck, especially with children. At the time, it was thought only the touch of a sovereign could cure you (which gave it the name ‘the king’s evil’) and public touching ceremonies were organised.

Taylor intertwines real historical events with a gripping murder mystery. In this book there are a lot of different plotlines coming together. I’m always curious to see how everything will fit in at the end. That’s why these books feel slow at times, but you’re also really flying through them in some way 😅. I’m looking forward to see what the future has in store for James and Cat in ‘The last protector’.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Have you read this series? Do you recommend a similar one?

Rags of Time by Michael Ward

Wool merchant Joseph Venell is strangely murdered on the countryside near London. Spice trader Thomas Tallant, just returned from India, is asked for his opinion on the case by an investigator. Against his will, the suspicion falls on him, even more when Venell’s business partner dies at the house of his parents. How can he prove his innocence? Luckily, Thomas gets some help from the intelligent but mysterious Elizabeth Seymour and his best friend Edmund.

The cover states that the murder was just the beginning of the affair and actually this is a great description. The story has many different plot lines that have nothing to do with the murder mystery. 17th century England under the reign of Charles I comes alive in this new historical mystery series (as I suspect there will be more books with Thomas and Elizabeth as main characters).

The 1630’s isn’t exactly a time period that I know a lot about. There’s a lot of historical context in the other plot lines, such as the religious uproar between the puritans and the Anglican followers of bisshop Laud, the protégé of the queen. We also get some insight in the world of the merchants working for the East-Indian Trading company. I especially loved the description of London, a city full of possibilities by trade. As a result many people move to London and the city is overcrowded, full of disease and with a strong stench of human filth.

There’s an enormous cast of characters. I liked Thomas Tallant, he’s no ordinary detective as in many mystery novels, but a spice trader who becomes involved in a series of strange events. This is quite an original starting point for the whole affair as Thomas doesn’t have any particular skills on how to catch a killer. However, he does have the skill to get himself into trouble 😅.

Elizabeth Seymour has a lot of potential as a character. She’s beautiful and witty, way ahead of her time and interested in science. She also has a gambling problem. But I believe she didn’t get enough ‘screen time’ in this novel to really flower.

At the end, it all comes together. For me the revelations felt a bit messy sometimes, especially the action scenes. I’m not yet sure if I’ll read any sequel though. Rags of time is an entertaining mystery novel with a great cast and an interesting historical setting.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5.

Thanks to Michael Ward for a copy of his book in return for my honest opinion.

The fire court by Andrew Taylor

A few months after the fire of London, James Marwood is still working as a clerk at Whitehall Palace when his elderly father falls under the wheels of a wagon and dies. The night before his death, he came home with blood on his sleeves telling a strange story about a women in a yellow dress with red spots. Marwood dismisses the story as nonsense until suddenly a body of a woman in a yellow dress is found in the ruins of the burnt city. This leads him to the fire court, where judges are trying to solve conflicts between landowners and renters about the reconstruction after the fire. A case about a place called Dragon Yard guides Marwood again in the arms of Cat Lovett, daughter of a regicide, who’s now hiding at the house of Dr. Hakesby as his niece Jane Hakesby.

The fire court is the second book in a series of historical mysteries set after the fire of London in 1666. You don’t need to have read the first book ‘ashes of London‘ but I do recommend to do so. When reading ashes of London, it felt like an introduction to the background of the main characters James Marwood and Cat Lovett. The murder mystery wasn’t that big. And that disappointed me a bit.

But in this novel, the mystery is the main focus point of the story and there’s a lot more action. Again, you get to read different chapters from either James’ or Cat’s perspective, but there’s also a third narrator. Jemina Limbury is the rich but troubled wife of Philip Limbury, an important man at Whitehall who also has an interest in the Dragon Yard case of the fire court.

I liked the setting of the fire court, as I had no idea about the details of the reconstruction of London after the fire. Taylor again does a great job in creating an atmosphere where you can smell the ashes from the pages. This setting in combination with a complex mystery made it an enjoyable read. There are some convincing side characters from James’ traumatized father Nathaniel, his servants the caring Margaret and Sam, the one-legged war veteran, to the scheming Jemina Limbury, her loyal maidservant Mary and Gromwell. A man as dark as the man whose name resemblances his own.

I finally felt some connection with Cat, now Jane Hakesby. James Marwood goes through a lot in this story. The death of his father, a personal tragedy when trying to save a victim from a fire and conflicting loyalties towards his two employers at Whitehall. I’m curious what lies ahead for them in the next installment in the series: the king’s evil.

Rating: 4 out of 5.

What’s your favourite mystery series?

Sovereign by C.J. Sansom

One year after the dramatic downfall of Thomas Cromwell, Matthew Shardlake is mourning his father. He receives a summons from archbishop Thomas Cranmer to go to York to bring legal petitions before the king during his Progress of the North. Shardlake accepts as this is a chance to settle his father’s debts and he travels to York with Barak. But Cranmer has also another task for Matthew. A dangerous prisoner needs to be brought safe and sound to London for interrogation in the Tower. Once in York, Matthew witnesses a murder on a glazier while at the same time a young girl is determined to form an attachment with his only friend Barak.

I love this series! After some disappointing reads, I was happy to wander again through Tudor England with my favorite crookback lawyer. The setting in Sovereign might be my favorite so far. We are 1941, a few years after the Pilgrimage of The Grace when a new conspiracy is discovered in the north of the country. The aging and obese king Henry VIII decides to go on Progress to the north together with his new teenage queen, Catherine Howard.

As this novel counts over 600 pages, some readers may find it slow. But this isn’t your standard murder mystery, this is also a terrific novel about Tudor England. The details about the Progress, the hostile atmosphere towards southrons and reformists in York, the queen’s secret.. it all adds to the drama.

The murder mystery is about a glazier that has been pushed from a ladder. When Shardlake and Barak find a box full of discriminating documents about the king himself, they are in grave danger. But before they can read the papers, someone has already stolen them. Someone within the court in York. The mystery will take us back to the Wars of The Roses and although I guessed what would be the basis of the documents after seeing the royal family tree, I was still curious how it would all play out in the end. There are a few red herrings and for once I was in doubt what to believe and who to suspect.

There is more than the murder alone. Barak and his love interest Tamasin get in trouble with Lady Rochford and the queen. The prisoner Broderick receives help from someone inside. Richard Rich is on war with Shardlake to drop a case in London. As always all the plot lines will come together in the end. I didn’t even miss Cromwell, as Cranmer and Rich fill his shoes perfectly.

This is the best book in the series so far. You can read it as a standalone, but I would suggest to start with ‘Dissolution’ first, as you will understand some relations better. And both ‘Dissolution‘ and ‘Dark fire‘ are great reads too.

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.