City of Masks is the third outing for medieval crime-solving Lord of the Manor Oswald de Lacy and an excellent addition to a thoroughly enjoyable series. As one would expect from a writer of Sykes’ calibre, the novel works perfectly well as a stand-alone but I would recommend reading them in order if only for the increasing depths to be found in Oswald’s character – one of the real strengths of this novel.
Set in 1358 (eight years after the first novel Plague Land), City of Masks moves Oswald out of his familiar Kent and into a Venice under siege from the Hungarians and in the grip of the mysterious and deeply sinister secret police, the Signori di Notte. It is this change of location which brings an added dimension to Oswald’s story and a real richness to the writing. Venice becomes a character just as important as the stumbling, troubled Oswald and his infuriating (cleverly-depicted) mother. From its labyrinthine streets and almost-tribal districts to the layers of control wielded by the city’s masters which create an atmosphere of paranoia and mistrust, Sykes uses carefully nuanced description to create a Venice which casts a fearful shadow across the story. And this is a story about shadows. Oswald, as all the best detectives are, is a man with a past he is trying to escape and a past as deeply troubled as the city he finds himself in.
City of Masks is a darker book than the previous two. The central strand remains a murder, in this instance a dead body found in the canal on the night of a carnival. Oswald’s mother retains her somewhat comic role and Oswald’s engagement with the crime starts with a similar degree of reluctance as in Plague Land and The Butcher Bird. However, as Sykes has given the setting more sinister depths than Somershill Manor, she has also given Oswald deeper dimensions than his younger incarnations. I welcomed this. Although I very much enjoyed the first two books, I wanted a less innocent protagonist to lead me through the crimes and that is what is delivered here. It is a risky thing sometimes to pull both place and character from familiar patterns but, in City of Masks, this not only pays off, it left this reader reluctant to turn the last page and already hungry for Oswald’s next outing. Sykes has created a medieval detective story with a troubled protagonist which manages to stay true to its period and hints at even richer things to come – I thoroughly recommend it.
City of Masks is out on 13th July. Find out more about S D Sykes here.
Catherine Hokin‘s debut novel, Blood and Roses, brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine – and blogs monthly for The History Girls.