Hodder & Stoughton | 2017 (13 July) | 368p | Review copy | Buy the book
It is 1358 and some years have passed since the events chronicled in The Butcher Bird. Oswald de Lacy, the young Lord Somershill, is not the man he once was. He is pursued by demons and they have chased him to Venice where he waits for passage on a vessel to the Holy Land. Pilgrimage is Oswald’s hope but Venice is at war with Hungary and this is keeping all ships in harbour. It’s also not doing much to help the mood in this naturally suspicious and paranoid yet pleasure-loving city. Executions and torture are common, and among the masked gamblers, drinkers and lovers, lurk spies, thieves and murderers.
As the novel begins, we’re not sure what has happened to Oswald to drive him from England in such despair but he’s in need of diversion. But this comes from an unfortunate source. A friend is found murdered outside the house where Oswald is staying and Oswald, who has brought from England a bit of a reputation as being a solver of mysteries, is hired by the dead man’s exceedingly unpleasant grandfather to find the young man’s killer. The pursuit of the murderer throws Oswald into the heart of this lively and misbehaving city of secrets. Most have something to hide. It doesn’t help that the belligerent Venetian authorities have Oswald in their sights – a foreigner asking questions stands out. But Oswald isn’t on his own. His mother has accompanied him to Venice. Oh dear.
City of Masks is S.D. Sykes’ third Somershill Manor mystery and it’s very different from the previous two. The obvious difference is that this novel isn’t set in England but Oswald, our young hero, is not the man he was before, due to tantalising reasons that only become truly known in the second half of the novel. We’ve moved away from the devastating impact of the Black Death on Oswald’s manor and tenants but Oswald is clearly in pain. Discovering the reasons for this adds both power and poignancy to a novel that is also a thoroughly satisfying medieval mystery which throws a curious light on life in Venice during the mid 14th century.
The Venetian setting is marvellous. Its places familiar to us today mix with those lost in history but all are filled with colourful, lovely characters, many of whom are up to no good. There is a theme of religious pilgrimage running through City of Masks but this is skin deep, as shown in the city’s hypocrisy and unkindness to the poor, ill and vulnerable. I loved the descriptions of the waterways and islands of Venice, its palaces, grand houses, prisons and inns. It is richly evocative, both glamorous and seedy, wealthy and squalid. In a way, Oswald himself sums this all up – he might be a lord but he is living on the edge of respectability.
I have to admit that I was wary when I heard that City of Masks would be moved away from its setting in medieval England. Medieval Venice didn’t have the same appeal to me. But I needn’t have worried. S.D. Sykes is such a fine writer who really knows her subject and history and she makes Venice seem so real – a mysterious place in which one can be lost so easily. The mystery is a fascinating and gripping one, even more so because it throws such light on Venetian society at this time. S.D. Sykes is also great with people – I loved the characters in City of Masks. Oswald’s mother drives me mad at times (poor Oswald) but I’m rather glad she came along.
Oswald’s character and story dominate the novel and deservedly so. He is always likeable, flawed though he undoubtedly is, and we care for him. City of Masks works well as a stand alone novel but I think much can be gained for having read the three books in order. Watching Oswald grow from boy to man is well worth doing and a lot of this culminates in City of Masks. I also really enjoyed the way in which the mystery behind Oswald’s troubles is revealed.
I have loved each of the three novels in this wonderful, brilliantly written historical series but, if I had to pick a favourite, it would be City of Masks. From start to finish, it is nothing less than mesmerising and engrossing.