Book Review: City of Masks (A Somershill Manor Mystery #3), by S.D. Sykes

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton

Publication date:  13th July 2017

This third Somershill Manor Mystery has an entirely different vibe to its predecessors. It sails away from the familiar territory of Oswald de Lacy’s manorial commitments in Kent to transport us to the City of Masks, Venice 1358. 

Considerable time has past since our ex-novice monk inherited the title of Lord Somershill and gained respect as an amateur sleuth and we are fast forwarded seven years from The Butcher Bird (book 2) for Oswald to embark on a pilgrimage to the Holy Land. 

The aim of his journey is to help him recover from an unshakeable melancholy which is manifesting itself at untimely intervals. But it seems no matter how far he travels ,or how long he ignores his responsibilities at home, an oppressive gloom continues to track his hiding places before silently passing judgement.

There’s a real sense of dread for Oswald this time around. He has suffered miserably through no fault of his own and exhibits signs of some very dark thoughts indeed and struggles to face demons that are not revealed until later in the story. The reasons for his predicament were a giant leap from the inexperienced and immature Oswald I’d grown accustomed to during the last two books, so this development came as a bit of a surprise.

Ironically, it’s not due to any religious aspect of the journey that he finds solace. Instead he finds his spirits lift when playing games of dice with dramatic successes. Alas, his low mood is restored when losses mount up and he faces the threat of debt recovery, Venetian thuggery style. 

Of course no voyage is without its minor irritations either. Yes, there’s his mother who has not only encouraged the entire ‘pilgrim ordeal’ but insists on accompanying him every step of the way. As expected she’s her usual tactless self, testing the patience of the company they meet – oh dear, she would be mortified if she knew how Oswald was spending his time and his limited funds!

Their travel plans are also disrupted by the brutal death of the grandson of an old friend the de Lacy’s are staying with during their stopover and the huge question hanging over Oswald is: will his sleuthing skills come in handy and strengthen his resolve, or will he crack under pressure when the ever-watchful authorities takes an interest in his involvement? It’s difficult to call, as his English title, together with the lesser known one of ‘Investigative Genius’ bestowed on him by his mother, are nothing compared to the callous motives of the murderer as the body count rises. I was partially right with their identity but I cannot say any more as this escalated into something I was not remotely anticipating!

This murderous diversion takes a desperately haunted Oswald into the most wretched parts of the city where he encounters unpredictable opposition from all quarters, redefines his people skills, and is pushed toward a darkness he can no longer turn his back on.

First appearances can be deceptive, and the City of Masks is no exception. Whispered secrets slither through a warren of filthy streets and murky waterways to leave a trail from where escape is not an option and discovery is deadly.

I hope there’s a new mystery in the pipeline soon as I adore this medieval crime series and every single character that breathes life into it.

Rating:  5/5

(I requested a copy of this title from the Publisher and NetGalley and received a copy with my thanks, for which it is my pleasure to provide an unbiased review.)

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

A brilliantly dark and compelling novel set in Venice from ‘the medieval CJ Sansom’ (Jeffery Deaver) 1358. Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, is in Venice, awaiting a pilgrim galley to the Holy Land. While the city is under siege from the Hungarians, Oswald lodges with an English merchant, and soon comes under the dangerous spell of the decadent and dazzling island state that sits on the hinge of Europe, where East meets West. Oswald is trying to flee the chilling shadow of something in his past, but when he finds a dead man on the night of the carnival, he is dragged into a murder investigation that takes him deep into the intrigues of this mysterious, paranoid city. Coming up against the feared Signori di Notte, the secret police, Oswald learns that he is not the only one with something to hide. Everybody is watching somebody else, and nobody in Venice is what he or she seems. The masks are not just for the carnival.

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(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

SD Sykes now lives in Kent, but grew up in Somerset and South London, before spending many years in the North West of England. She is a graduate from Manchester University, and has a Masters degree in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She has a passion for medieval history and was inspired to finish her first novel after attending the novel writing course at literary agents, Curtis Brown. She has also written for radio, and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.

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Book Review: The Butcher Bird (Somershill Manor Mystery #2), by S. D. Sykes

Publisher:  Hodder & Stoughton

Publication date: 

22nd October 2014 (Hardback & Ebook)

7th April 2016 (Paperback)

The Butcher Bird is a mesmerising mystery as an epidemic of a different kind arrives in Somershill, one spread by panic and fear. After disease flocked to our 14th century shores with no regard for social status, the years that follow breed superstition and madness, although it’s exceptionally difficult to tell which when dealing with the tenants under Oswald de Lacy’s jurisdiction.

Poor Oswald. The naïve, spoiled novice we met in Plague Land and watched as he solved a medieval mystery involving a desperate persecution among the locals, only to unearth more skeletons in his family’s cupboard than any person should have accrued in a lifetime.  Having left his cloistered life to reluctantly accept a title bestowed upon him, he discovers the hard way that time doesn’t heal everything: recent mass deaths have caused an abrupt shortage of labour, wage grievances entice his tenants to greener pastures, and the contempt the rest of the villagers feel for their newly appointed young Lord could easily result in heckling given the slightest opportunity.

Inadequacies of his servants, the senseless laws he must uphold, his mother re-enacting tragedy at every waking moment and her physician who believes dung cures all known ailments chips away at him from all sides. Add to that a heavily pregnant, condescending widow, who is also his sister, and her feral step-daughters, well, his Lordship is wrung out by the ordeal. Even his horse requires bribery before considering a command!

Oswald barely has a moment in private to consult the ‘tempting’ manuscript he keeps hidden in his room when The Butcher Bird arrives in Somershill. This most recent challenge is the fantastical reasoning to explain how infants are missing from the safety of their cribs and are found dead in nearby shrubbery. As Oswald has morphed into a human misery magnet, unwillingly attracting the manor’s redundant souls who can no longer find their place in this baron world, he is tasked with discovering the whereabouts of a murderous beast. More importantly he must intervene to prevent the lynching of a grief-stricken local man accused of inviting this winged creature to feast on children after he lost his own during the pestilence.

From this point onward, everything that cannot be explained by simple means is the fault of The Butcher Bird, or Oswald himself. The gravity of the grim riddle that taunts him is complimented by the amusing witlessness of humble folk, as they feign ignorance when it suits and develop a brutal shrewdness when beneficial. It’s essential in tales like these that the writing evokes the wretchedness of the era but in this case it also projects the physical disgust of our young investigator when approached by, well, people. At first he copes admirably, that is until they taint the moment by attempting to prolong a conversation, or heaven forbid touch him!

I’m incredibly fond of Oswald for both his poor judgement resulting from both an aversion to peasants and also his own confidence, even when he’s on the right track. Life is certainly more illuminating outside monastic walls; Oswald de Lacy may be a novice in every respect but he’s learning, and witnessing his progress after he’s considered the bleakness faced by others is the pearl in a sea of despair.

Rating:  5/5

Source: My own purchased copy. Another one off the personal TBR bites the dust, and quite brilliant it was too – just like Plague Land (Book 1) which I read back in 2014! Very much looking forward to City of Masks (Book 3) which will be published in July!

(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

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.

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(Courtesy of Amazon UK)

SD Sykes now lives in Kent, but grew up in Somerset and South London, before spending many years in the North West of England. She is a graduate from Manchester University, and has a Masters degree in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She has a passion for medieval history and was inspired to finish her first novel after attending the novel writing course at literary agents, Curtis Brown. She has also written for radio, and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.

TWITTER   |   WEBSITE