City of Masks: S.D. Sykes

★★

The Somershill Manor Mysteries: Book III

The first thing to bear in mind about this book is that it’s actually third in a series. This wasn’t made clear in the blurb for my Netgalley ARC, so I was immediately wrong-footed when it assumed much more knowledge of its protagonist, and his history, than I had. It’s part of the Somershill Manor Mysteries series, the first of which is Plague Land and the second The Butcher Bird. If you are interested in reading City of Masks, I strongly recommend you read those two first, as I think they would add considerably to your enjoyment. In my ignorance, however, and lured by the promise of a novel set in 14th-century Venice, I simply plunged straight in…

It took me quite a few pages to figure out whether our protagonist was a man or a woman and, once I’d realised he was a man, I had to wait a little longer for his name. He is Oswald de Lacy, Lord Somershill, a young English nobleman who has stopped with his mother for a sojourn in Venice, on their way to the Holy Land. They stay with the irascible old English merchant John Bearpark, who has made a fortune trading with the Venetians, but who knows that his foreign birth will forever exclude him from the inner circle of the city’s nobility. And they are not the only visitors: Bearpark is also playing host to two more pilgrims, Bernard and Margery Jagger, a brother and sister who spend their time visiting Venice’s shrines and, in Margery’s case, keeping the vow of silence she took upon leaving England. The final inhabitants of this curious household are Bearpark’s much younger wife Filomena, his exuberant grandson Enrico, and his prim clerk Giovanni.

All is not well, however, at Ca’ Bearpark. In the very midst of Carnival, Enrico’s bloodied body is discovered at the house’s water-gate and the frail Bearpark is anxious to avoid the probing attentions of the Consiglio dei Dieci. Fortunately Oswald has form as a murder investigator (which came as a surprise to me, but won’t to anyone who’s read the earlier books). He agrees to take on the case for a small fee, which he hopes will repay his gambling debt to Enrico’s rapacious friend Vittore. But all is not as simple as it seems. There is no immediate suspect or motive. Bearpark confides in Oswald that Enrico liked men, rather than women, and wonders whether his grandson’s ‘special friends’ might prove a useful place to start. And so Oswald sets off on his investigation, aided by the recalcitrant and reluctant Giovanni. He hopes not only to discover Enrico’s killer but also, by hook or by crook, to free himself from the lowering shadow of his own depression, scuttling relentlessly at his heels. And that’s not the only thing that’s following him.

In principle, it sounded good. I’m all for creeping around the twilight streets of medieval Venice but, the more I read, the more I realised that I wanted to do so in the company of someone other than Oswald. He just never developed much of a character for me. Now, I’ll admit that I was hamstrung by not realising there had been two earlier books, in which I may well have learned all the ins and outs of Oswald’s soul. But I felt no spark of personality, no inner depths: his depression and his great sorrow felt like things which had been tacked on, rather than being organic, deep parts of his true soul. It’s true that, with a third book in a series, authors can expect readers to have already tackled the first two. But they have to take into account that the odd reader might come stumbling into Book Three, blissfully unaware. I found myself in the company of a man who was being stalked by something ominous and dark, but who didn’t explain what it was until halfway through the book. When he finally did, it was a bit of an anticlimax. And, although I appreciated the lack of infodumping, it was frustrating trying to figure out exactly what Oswald was running away from. Something had obviously happened in England, and people kept making sage references to his ‘troubles’, but the book was well advanced by the time I found out the details. Ultimately, however, I simply didn’t believe in the stout, rich reality of the first-person narrator – and that was an issue.

The mystery was a bit odd too. I twigged one clue very early, although the final explanation was so complicated that I felt double-bluffed into blind acceptance. And why did it matter that Enrico was gay? He didn’t have to be at all. Of course, why not have a character who just happens to be gay? – but the fact Enrico liked men was held up as being a major plot point and, in fact, wasn’t. It felt a tiny bit as if the author was adding something to make him more interesting, rather like Oswald’s own melancholia. Furthermore, I thought there was a rather dated attitude to the Venetian characters: Filomena is the engimatic dark beauty, while Giovanni is the stock foreign sidekick, who makes amusing mistakes with his English and fusses too much over his appearance.

Essentially, I’m afraid I just couldn’t summon up the empathy or engagement to really savour this. Having come to it for, as promised, a tale of intrigue in Venice, I suppose I did get that, but I didn’t really get a sense of why this was 14th-century Venice and not 16th or 18th-century Venice. Beyond mentions of the plague, there wasn’t much sense of specific period flavour, nor was there ultimately much point to it. I’m frustrated that I didn’t like it. Amazon practically bristles with five-star reviews, and I feel somewhat like a lone, plague-ridden beggar standing all alone on the other side of the fence with my warning bell. But that’s the way it is. I wanted more feeling for the historical period; I wanted a cleaner, less convoluted solution to the mystery; and, more than anything, I wanted more immediate, more gripping characterisation.

I don’t like criticising things. It makes me feel sad and guilty (I always feel very abashed when searching for author photos in these cases). In this case, the fault is clearly partly mine for inadvertently plunging in halfway through a series, but I feel the issues are there nevertheless. I’d be interested to know whether anyone else has had similar feelings about this book, or whether perhaps I’ve missed some amazing spark of genius that everyone else has been intelligent enough to be able to pick up.

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I received this book from the publisher via Netgalley in exchange for a fair and honest review

3 thoughts on “City of Masks: S.D. Sykes

  1. Helen says:

    I was tempted by this on Netgalley but I discovered it was the third in the series and didn’t request it. It sounds as though I made the right decision! A strong sense of the time period is important to me when I read historical fiction, so I would probably have been disappointed too, especially if there are also problems with the characters.

    • The Idle Woman says:

      Yes, I wouldn’t bother, Helen – though of course you might think it’s totally fantastic and that I’ve entirely lost the plot. 🙂 Well done for spotting that it was already well into a series. I can’t say I’ve been left itching to find the earlier ones, alas, although (as so often happens) many people seem to have enjoyed them.

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