City of Masks by S D Sykes – review

Published by Hodder and Stoughton

Publication date – 13 July 2017

Source – review copy

1358. Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, is in Venice, awaiting a pilgrim galley to the Holy Land. While the city is under siege from the Hungarians, Oswald lodges with an English merchant, and soon comes under the dangerous spell of the decadent and dazzling island state that sits on the hinge of Europe, where East meets West.

Oswald is trying to flee the chilling shadow of something in his past, but when he finds a dead man on the night of the carnival, he is dragged into a murder investigation that takes him deep into the intrigues of this mysterious, paranoid city.

Coming up against the feared Signori di Notte, the secret police, Oswald learns that he is not the only one with something to hide. Everybody is watching somebody else, and nobody in Venice is what he or she seems. The masks are not just for the carnival.

Oswald de Lacy and his mother are in Venice, waiting for a ship to take them to the Holy Land. However the Venetians and Hungarians are at a standoff so Oswald finds himself trapped for a while in the floating city. The black cloak of depression he had hoped to leave behind has followed him from England. The gambling he had hoped would stave off dark moods has become an addiction that could cost him everything. Then he finds a body, and he is drawn into the dark calles of Venice in the hopes of finding a killer, and saving himself in the process.

I’ll admit I didn’t like Oswald as much in this novel. He seemed more mean-spirited than normal. His mother was more sensitive, or at least as sensitive as she could be, and needed Oswald more. I found myself liking her more, even her cantankerous side grew on me.  His reaction to situations was one that seemed out of character. There were reasons for his actions, for his depression and whilst I knew that those would be revealed I did find myself lacking in sympathy for him. Instead of appearing older, as this story was set a few years after the last, he came across as younger. This sometimes manifested as him needing guidance that was sadly lacking or that was ignored when received. His stubbornness appeared more in this novel, traits he unknowingly would have obtained from his mother and sister.

The mystery itself was engaging and I loved the setting of Venice. The city and its own laws and rules, the fearsome Signori di Notte and the horror of the leper colony, together with the vivid descriptions of the cacophony of life on the calles and canals conjured up a full picture of medieval Venice. A lot of research would have gone into this novel and it shows. The atmosphere, the sights, sounds and fear of those in charge rise up from the pages. It was interesting to compare this with the setting of the other novels. There is a darkness, or perhaps a grimy film, that covers the stories set in England, one which enforces the bleakness of the landscape and the lives of those who work the land. In City of Masks that darkness is shown in a different light. There is the impression of colour, of festival and merriment but that too has an undercurrent of something deeper, when the hidden poverty of the city is shown.

The investigation brought a return of the old Oswald. It was also good to see Oswald’s mother more involved in this investigation. It is always interesting to read a novel where the crime can’t be deduced from DNA or fingerprint evidence, it’s one of the reasons I enjoy good historical crime fiction. City of Masks is an example of good historical crime fiction.

I’ll be interested to see what adventures Oswald gets up to next, particularly after the ending in this one.

About the author

SD Sykes lives in Kent with her family and various animals. She has done everything from professional dog-walking to co-founding her own successful business. She is a graduate from Manchester University and has an MA in Writing from Sheffield Hallam. She attended the novel writing course at literary agents Curtis Brown where she was inspired to finish her first novel. She has also written for radio and has developed screenplays with Arts Council funding.

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