I’m delighted to be part of the launch celebrations for S D Sykes’s new novel ‘The Butcher Bird’ which was published in hardback by Hodder and Stoughton on 22nd October 2015.
Oswald de Lacy is growing up fast in his new position as Lord of Somershill Manor. The Black Death changed many things, and just as it took away his father and elder brothers, leaving Oswald to be recalled from the monastery where he expected to spend his life, so it has taken many of his villagers and servants. However, there is still the same amount of work to be done in the farms and fields, and the few people left to do it think they should be paid more – something the King himself has forbidden.
Just as anger begins to spread, the story of the Butcher Bird takes flight. People claim to have witnessed a huge creature in the skies. A new-born baby is found impaled on a thorn bush. And then more children disappear.
Convinced the bird is just a superstitious rumour, Oswald must discover what is really happening. He can expect no help from his snobbish mother and his scheming sister Clemence, who is determined to protect her own child, but happy to neglect her step-daughters.
From the plague-ruined villages of Kent to the thief-infested streets of London and the luxurious bedchamber of a bewitching lady, Oswald’s journey is full of danger, dark intrigue and shocking revelations.
Here S D Sykes tells us about her central character Oswald de Lacy and his adventures as a medieval ‘investigator.’
The Butcher Bird is my second book, written in a frenzied year after the publication of Plague Land. It’s a historical crime thriller, set in the aftermath of the Black Death of 1348-50 and is the second book to feature Oswald de Lacy as a medieval ‘investigator.’ I use the word ‘investigator’, rather than ‘detective’ since the concept of crime detection was pretty much unheard of in this age. If a crime were committed, then it was up to the local constable to raise a ‘hue and cry’ and track down the supposed criminal. It was often no more sophisticated than that.
In Plague Land, Oswald has been called back from the Benedictine monastery, where he was due to take his vows, and has become Lord of the Somershill estate, following the death of his father and brothers. He’s a very young and very inexperienced lord, who finds it difficult to command respect from his servants and workers. His job is only made the harder when he is called upon to find the killer of two girls from the village. At first he needs to solve the murder because of the disturbance it’s causing in the village. Soon he wants to find the murderer because he cares.
In The Butcher Bird, Oswald has become stronger and more battle-scarred, but still struggles to quell a mob when they attempt to hang a local mad man. They claim this man has released a monstrous bird upon their village – a bird that has killed a child and then impaled the body upon a bush of thorns, just as the real butcher bird, the Red-backed Shrike, deals with its prey. Oswald rails against such superstition and ignorance, and steps in to give their victim sanctuary. But is Oswald’s judgment clouded by his experience the previous year, when these same villagers set upon a young boy whose only crime was to be disfigured? Should he pay more attention to the evidence, and listen to advice? His investigation leads him into the dark heart of medieval London, and then back to Kent, where Oswald finally unravels the mystery and discovers the identity of the true murderer.
The book is written against a backdrop of the enormous change in 14th century society. The Black Death is estimated to have killed half the population, but left those who were lucky enough to survive with a power they had not enjoyed before. The poorest in society demanded higher wages for their labour and an end to their status as bonded/unfree villeins. All of a sudden, feudalism was under attack, and the King himself created laws in an attempt at wage control, and to keep the peasants in their place! Whilst feudalism persisted, this was the beginning of its end.
Although the books are in a series, I should say that it’s perfectly possible to read them out of order. I’m currently writing the third, as yet unnamed novel, where Oswald is delayed in Venice whilst on pilgrimage to Jerusalem. Whilst there he becomes involved in that leads him into the dangerous and secretive world of political intrigue in the Venetian republic. I hope you enjoy them!
I’m sure we’ll all love reading both ‘The Butcher Bird’ and ‘Plague Land’.
SD Sykes lives in Kent with her family and various animals. She has done everything from professional dog-walking to co-founding her own successful business. She is a graduate from Manchester University and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She attended the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown where she was inspired to finish her first novel. She has also written for radio and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.
You can follow S D Sykes on Twitter and on her web site.
Praise for PLAGUE LAND
‘There’s a nice, cliché-free sharpness to Sykes’ writing . . . that suggests a medieval Raymond Chandler at work, and there are no phony celebrations of the peasantry or earth-mothers thrusting herbal concoctions down grateful throats. Plenty of action and interesting characters, without intervention of the libertarian modern conscience that so often wrecks the medieval historical novel’ – Independent
‘PLAGUE LAND is a fascinating historical crime novel about a world turned upside down, inhabited by a rich cast of characters. A terrific debut and a wonderful start to a brand-new series’ Antonia Hodgson, author of THE DEVIL IN THE MARSHALSEA
‘Sykes has really reset the bar for medieval mysteries . . . every clue brings with it unexpected twists and turns. When you think you know who the killer is, you’re slapped with yet another surprise’ Medievalists
‘Sykes’s debut provides everything a reader would want in a historical mystery: a gripping plot, vivid language, living and breathing characters, and an immersive depiction of the past’ Publisher’s Weekly
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