PLAGUE LAND. The title of the book itself is enough for me to pick it up. That is enough reason for me to pick it up. While we’re still living in our own pandemic, I thought, why not, eh? In addition, I had just been smacked in the brain because I read a book that is awful and I don’t know how to review it without being rude and nasty. I picked up PLAGUE LAND hoping that this could cure me from the disease that was that last book.
Sometimes I wish that I’d read archaeology textbooks at the same speed as I am reading these novels. I have finished five books in a row in the last two months. My head is as full as my notebook. I have gained new knowledge and new information and new understanding after reading these books. That brought me to question my own stupid decision to leave out reading as my daily habit.
Anyway, I am trying a new format for this review. I thought that my previous format isn’t concise enough as a book review. This is me being critically bitchy about my own writings. I’m trying to employ this Extra, extra section to write something that appeared interesting to me during my reading of each book. Sometimes there will be extra, sometimes there won’t be.
Plague Land: Storyline
PLAGUE LAND is the first book by SD Sykes. It revolves in the universe of Somershill Manor and its surrounding Kent landscape. The year this story began was 1350, two years post-pestilence with plenty of domino effect and a reminder of the dark episode of humankind.
There are many new and interesting characters in PLAGUE LAND: Oswald de Lacy, Brother Peter, John of Cornwall, Margaret de Lacy (Oswald’s mum), Clemence de Lacy (Oswald’s sister), Mirabel, etc.
Our main character in PLAGUE LAND is Oswald de Lacy—just appointed as Lord of Somershill cause his dad and two older brothers perished in the Plague. He was studying in a monastery and got called back to the house to become its lord. He inherited difficulties: less serf to work, worrisome harvest, minimum livestock, and murders…
THE CASE: A girl was found dead in the forest nearby and Oswald was straightaway given the task to “solve” this incident which appears to be a murder. Why? Cause the resident constable and the coroner of Somershill was dead of the Plague. Considering his familiarity with examining sick and dead bodies as he was a novice in the infirmary, Oswald must take the task.
Per usual with Medieval mystery, the first suspect is near-damn always some supernatural being. This time, it’s a dog-headed beast called Cynocephalus. Along the chapters I can sense intense character developments between Oswald and John of Cornwall, the parish priest. One is sceptical and practical; the other one is superstitious to the bone.
Each chapter presented me with problems after problems without any solution in sight. But this is not frustrating. In fact, it kept me guessing and turning pages hastily. I must admit that there were several times that I had to flip pages back to make sure that I actually get the point.
But did I expect that ending? NO!
This is one of the books that made me jump and curse after reading the explanation and conclusion the last chapters. Seriously? SD Sykes had just become my new favourite author. I can’t get to write about this without mentioning spoilers. But I will remember to not expect or guess anything when reading SD Sykes books.
If you would ask me for things that I don’t like in this book, there is none. I loved the rawness of her writings, the way she explained the situation when Oswald had to hide amongst the rotting bodies in the plague pit. Ew… that is seriously disgusting but beautifully written. You know, to my taste—grim and gory.
I would recommend this book for people who like Karen Maitland, Ariana Franklin, and Candace Robb. All women authors? No, not because I’m hyper-actively supporting current women’s movement—but simply because I haven’t read much of male authors’ work in Medieval mysteries. Of course, I have them on my 2021’s list. This book is a great medicine from the vomit-ridden ailment that I suffered from the last book I read. SD Sykes is my cure. I can’t speak much about the ending without spoiling anything, but I’d recommend this book for an exciting adventure in Somershill. Also, don’t forget that this is only the first book of the Somershill series. So, I’m expecting to read more adventures in the next three books.
Wolves in England
Though Somershill appears to be a totally made-up location in West Kent, there is one particular fact that caught my attention. Wolves in England. I had to read up a PhD thesis and loads of articles to get to the bottom of my curiosity.
Edward I who reigned from 1272 to 1307 had ordered total extermination of wolves in his kingdom. He employed one Peter Corbet to destroy all wolves in Gloucestershire, Herefordshire, Worcestershire, Shropshire, and Staffordshire.
Wolves are thought to become extinct in England during the reign of Henry VII (1485-1509) with limited presence in Lancashire, Blackburnshire, Bowland, Peak District, and Yorkshire Wolds. Wolf bounties were then still maintained until early 19th century and as recent as 1999, a proposal of wolves reintroduction to the island was rejected due to protests from farmers worried of their livestock.
I swear to you I never realised that wolves are very much feared by humans. I mean, I know that they prefer to live their lives in the wilderness and I thought seldomly interact with humans. Plus, they’re cute hairy fluffy thing and I’ve never met them, so I really still think they’re cute and warm and fuzzy. Therefore, I was wondering what’s with all this lupophobia?
I learned that writings about how wolves are man-killer is commonly found in Anglo-Saxon literature. Nevertheless, I remember one dynasty called Wuffing, Wuffa, Wuff—okay, I forgot the name—which I guess is a name derived from ‘wolf’ or meaning ‘wolf’. So, maybe it’s a symbolism of something to be feared of by their enemies when you take that name? I don’t know—I’m freestyling here at the moment.
The reason why wolves are being hunted, Tim Flight wrote in History Today of a suggestion that the rise in human population and increased agriculture in Late Medieval period led to more interactions between wolves and humans. As wolves are considered dangerous for both human, cattle, and livestock, this increase the desire to eradicate them.
Time to enter zooarchaeology mode here. Pluskowski (2006) mentioned that even though wolves are thought to be abundant in Medieval England, its skeletal remains aren’t making up the majority of findings in an excavation. In this article, he argued that it’s mostly caused by difficulties of identification from dogs or hybrids. Though he also reminded:
The scarcity of Canis lupus in the medieval archaeological record should not, therefore, be solely attributed to the difficulties of identification… In all likelihood they will add further credence to the socio-ecological model of contrasting hunting cultures, ungulate control and related wolf biogeography proposed in this paper.
PULKOWSKI, 2006: 291.
Anyway, this is just a simple incomplete literature review. I will let related zooarchaeologists do their job and answer the question surrounding scarcity of wolves in archaeological context.