Plague Land

Written by S.D. Sykes

Review written by Angela Hatherell

Plague Land
Hodder & Stoughton
RRP: £18.99 / £7.12
Released: September 25, 2014
Hbk / Kindle

This book, set in rural England when the Plague was more or less over, plunges in to an atmosphere of squalor, superstition and horror.

The villagers are gathered round a bonfire, on which, it seems, a bull is being sacrificed - but something live is wriggling and screaming inside the bull's belly...

Having been sent to a monastery at the age of seven, Oswald, now aged eighteen, is returning home to be Lord of the Manor following the death of his father and two elder brothers. It would be hard enough for him to take on the burden of the estate - at the monastery was only an apprentice infirmarer - but he is faced straight away by a murder and a disappearance. The body of a young girl has been found, horribly mauled, apparently savaged by dogs. But the village priest, a mad ranting man called Cornwall Jack, has declared that the girl was attacked by fearsome creatures, the dog men, and such is his persuasiveness that he is believed, and people are convinced that such creatures have been seen, and they are too scared to go out to bring in the harvest.

This is not Oswald's only problem: he also has a domineering mother and a shrewish elder sister. He has, however, Brother Peter, his friend and mentor from the monastery. He rides about the estate, looking for the missing girl. On his travels he is overtaken by a fierce storm and shelters in a cave, where he finds Leofwin, a young boy who has been driven out by superstitious villagers. It is here also that he thinks he sees the dog men, howling and circling menacingly.

The story moves relentlessly on, with hysteria rising. We meet surly Lord Versey, who owns the adjoining estate, and agrees to marry Oswald’s sister Clemence, with a view to acquiring Oswald’s estate: Mirabel, a young girl whom Oswald rescues from, persecution, and villagers, some of whom are hostile, some, grudgingly supportive,. It becomes apparent that Oswald's father made very free with the village girls, and paternity and parentage become of vital importance towards the end of the book. We have again the sacrifice of the bull, in context, and its violence is the more shocking when we learn what was in the bull's belly.

S.D.Sykes has very sensibly decided not to try to write in “Olde-English”, with the result that the story flows smoothly, and evokes a compelling feeling of the squalor and poverty of the peasants' lives.

This book is obviously dark and disturbing, but is written so well that we are carried forward, eager to solve the enigmas. I do have to emphasize the skilful creating of medieval country life that folds us in dark evil- smelling, shadowy England. I truly lost all sense of time while reading it.


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