It’s 1351, and England is a dejected, anarchic place after the devastation of the Black Death. Half the population might have perished, but disaster brings opportunity for young Oswald de Lacy. He was never destined to become Lord of Somershill Manor, but when his father and brothers are killed by the Plague, he must return from the monastery and take charge of the family estate. But soon Oswald discovers that being Lord Somershill is something of a poisoned chalice. With so many dead, there are fewer people left to do more work. Now he has a mutinous workforce on his hands, and though he tries to use logic and patience to solve this problem, a struggling estate is soon not his only concern. When a newborn baby is found impaled on a thorn bush, the villagers say they have seen a huge creature in the skies. The Butcher Bird. And now there is no room for logic, no time for patience. The superstition takes hold, and if Oswald is to survive, he must find the truth behind a series of ever more brutal events. From the plague-ruined villages of Kent to the luxurious bedchambers of London, it is a journey full of danger, darkness and shocking revelations.
Read if you loved: C. J. Sansom
S. D. Sykes Biography
SD Sykes grew up in Somerset and London, and now lives in Kent with her husband and dogs.
She’s a graduate from Manchester University and ran her own successful business for many years. Her passion for medieval history inspired her first novel, Plague Land.
She has a Masters degree in Writing and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.
Her dogs don’t care about any of this, and would rather she leave her desk more often.
S. D. Sykes on the Inspiration Behind The Butcher Bird
What made me sit down and write a crime thriller that’s set in the time of a plague? The truth is that the Black Death has always held a chilling appeal for me. The panic and fear as news of the Plague reached England from the continent. The wretched nature of the disease itself. The devastating rates of mortality. I do like to read and write about the dark side of history, and it doesn’t come much darker than the Black Death.
The Butcher Bird is set in 1351, as the Plague wanes and England staggers slowly back to its feet. This post-apocalyptic world must have been a forlorn and forsaken place. The land was neglected. Houses lay empty and decaying. Whole families had been wiped out. But, perversely, this was also a time of opportunity – when the poorest in society suddenly held the balance of power and used it to demand higher wages and improved status. From being an age of death and devastation, these years soon became ones of unrest and social change. As a writer, this was an irresistible place to set a novel.
Into this concoction of disorder and turmoil, I dropped a boy of eighteen who unexpectedly inherits a position of wealth and responsibility. I was interested to explore the story of an unlikely hero. To put a shy, intelligent young man into a situation where he must sink or swim. I think many of us can relate to this, having been in such a position at some point in our lives – though hopefully not in such extreme circumstances!
Lastly, I wanted to delve a little further inside the medieval mind – a place of deeply held faith, but also of superstition and fear. I wanted to invent my own medieval monster, and weave this imagined creature into the story of a real murder. To pit the villagers’ belief in the supernatural against Oswald’s determination to use rationalism and logic to solve the crime. When I read about a genuine bird, the ‘Red-backed Shrike’, I immediately knew I had found my monster. This bird, commonly known as the Butcher Bird, impales its prey, usually the nestlings of other birds, onto the thorns of bushes – using these barbs as a type of larder. In a grisly way, it was perfect.