The Butcher Bird – S.D. Sykes

It’s September, 1351, and young English lord Oswald Somerville is trying to balance a somewhat senile mother, a harridan of a pregnant sister, and a raft of grumpy and intransigent fiefs against a mere nineteen years of life and experience. With no one to really depend on – since the last person he leaned on turned out to be a bit obsessive and murderous and his current right hand is lazy and disrespectful – he has quite a job of work in front of him, and it is all suddenly made more difficult when news reaches him that a baby has been stolen and murdered by a butcher bird – a gigantic bird supposedly sired by one of Oswald’s tenants on his dead wife. Now that tenant, driven mad by grief and trouble, is being hunted by the rest of the village who wants his blood, because of course it’s all his fault, and Oswald is trying very hard to convince people he’s just crazy, not sorcerous. Oh, and then there’s also the fact that though the plague – sorry, the Plague – has literally decimated (or more) the population, and so fewer people have to work harder to get the same crops in et cetera, the King has forbidden his lords to raise wages. Which makes no sense at all from a modern perspective, nor from a tenant’s perspective, nor even from Oswald’s perspective … so just about everyone is on the verge of either leaving or rebelling.

Basically, Oswald’s life is no fun at all.

And you know, after a certain point it’s not fun to read about either. Oswald’s okay; I don’t mind him. He legitimately does his best. But my lord does everyone around him start to get to me after a minute. And he stands out so drastically as someone who is good-hearted, earnest, trying to do what’s right for everyone around him … when everyone around him (everyone) is either out for himself or acting in a superstitious frenzy. But his sister is vicious, his mother is useless. The tenants want a) more money and b) to kill that guy they think is responsible for the baby’s death. Oswald wants to give them more money, but he will be in huge trouble with the powers that be if he does; he does not want to give them the madman, but it gets harder and harder to keep him out of their clutches.

It’s an intriguing setting – the secret of Oswald’s history, which is revealed in a solid manner to someone who didn’t read the first book in the series, leads to some very interesting dynamics with his family and within his own heart. It is all very much couched in a setting of medieval ignorance and superstition which I find I need to take in small doses; after a while I just find myself wanting to shake everyone till their brains rattle, because it might do them some good. I liked it; I don’t think I liked Oswald enough to go back and tolerate his female kinsfolk in the first book or in books to come.

The usual disclaimer: I received this book via Netgalley for review.

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