It’s a nerve-wracking thing, a series, warns Catherine Hokin. The author commits to a character, the reader buys in; everyone steels themselves against the nightmare moment when a shark will appear and be thoroughly jumped.
Well, fear not, Oswald de Lacy fans, this is a shark-free zone: SD Sykes’s latest outing for her medieval crime-solver has come up a treat.
The Bone Fire, the fourth book in the Somershill Manor Mystery series is set in 1361, the year the plague returned to terrorise England with a strain that particularly affected young men and boys, earning it the title of the Children’s Pestilence.
Book three in the series, City of Masks, widened Oswald’s world out of England to Venice. The Bone Fire closes it down to the narrow confines of Castle Eden, an isolated and cheerless place in the middle of marshland, composed of “stone walls and sky”, where Oswald has taken his family to find a safe haven from the spreading infection.
The book’s title takes its name from the pre-Christian tradition of burning animal bones to celebrate midsummer and mirrors the lonely and wretched death that plague sufferers could expect, denied the rights medieval society set such store by and disposed of like cattle.
Along with the de Laceys, Castle Eden has offered a place of shelter to a motley crew of refugees. Gathered behind the closed portcullis are the silent and troubled Lady Emma and her mismatched parents, a knight-protector, a monk, a clockmaker and his rather unpleasant nephew, a Fool, and the Lord of Eden’s drunken brother. It is an ensemble which owes a nod to both Chaucer and Agatha Christie and it is wonderfully constructed.
All the characters are richly drawn and deserve their place in the narrative. The physical descriptions are also vivid. Unlike its name, this Eden is a cold harsh place where flakes of snow go “fluttering to their death” and the reader feels every uncomfortable stone of it. Oswald may be hoping for sanctuary but the end of the world couldn’t feel closer, particularly when we realise he may have saved his family from sickness only to lead them into the arms of a killer.
The Bone Fire is at its heart a ‘locked room‘ or, in this case, a locked castle mystery. The first death comes quickly and without warning and, from this point on, the genre’s conventions are nicely observed. Crimes are committed in ways it seems impossible for the perpetrator to have committed them or to evade detection; once the crime is done, the perpetrator apparently vanishes into thin air.
Trapped in the castle and afraid for his wife and young son (less so for his ever-infuriating mother), Oswald is once again on the trail of a murderer. He is still a puzzle-solver with a sharp eye for detail but, this time, the tests he faces are more personal and the challenges of the plague bring his humanity to the fore, a nicely done character development.
As with the other three books in the series, The Bone Fire can be read as a stand-alone but I would recommend reading them in order as each outing layers new richness onto Oswald. In book four, SD Sykes proves that she is not only on top of her historical fiction game but is also a mistress of the detective genre. I thoroughly enjoyed it, thoroughly recommend it and am looking forward to seeing what threats Oswald will face next. This is a character who still has a long way to go and there isn’t a shark in sight.
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 the 2019 winner of the Flash 500 Short Story Competition and her stories have been published by iScot magazine, the Scottish Arts Club, Mslexia and Writers’ Forum – and blogs monthly for The History Girls. She is currently working on a set of novels based in Berlin, to be published in 2020.
Catherine Hokin has also reviewed the third Oswald de Lacy book, City of Masks.
Read some of Catherine’s other Historia articles:
An appearance of serenity: the French fashion industry in WWII.
Her reviews of The Almanack by Martine Bailey and The Story Keeper by Anna Mazzola.
Her review of Outlaw King.