It’s 1348 and the Black Death has come to England, slaughtering entire villages. The Church proclaims it to be punishment from heaven; only penance can save the people.
Lady Anne of Develish bases her own beliefs on observation and chooses, instead, to barricade herself, her daughter and 200 serfs inside the manor walls. In doing so she brings down the ire of the Church, locals lords, her violent husband – who she refuses to allow to re-enter – and her own daughter.
As the weeks and months of isolation pass, the food stores run low and tensions run high. They must decide – leave the demesne and risk death by the plague, or stay and risk death by starvation.
What I thought
Minette Walters is a master storyteller. The Last Hours is 555 pages long, yet my only complaint is that it wouldn’t fit in my handbag! I was absolutely riveted the entire way through and thrilled to discover at the end that there will be a sequel.
The characters jump off the page, the period comes alive in all its violent squalor and the action and suspense is managed expertly with a perfect level of detail.
The Black Death
Full disclaimer – I’ve always been fascinated by the Black Death. Victims of the bubonic plague died hideously painful deaths, with symptoms including fever, seizures, large swellings in the groin, armpit and neck, gangrene and vomiting blood.
The disease killed millions, wiping out around one-third of the European population. It was a real watershed moment, both socially and economically. Suddenly there weren’t enough people to work the land, giving labourers some power for the first time in centuries. The Black Death didn’t discriminate between rich and poor, heretic or priest.
As Thaddeus, a leader among the serfs in The Last Hours, explains:
The Black Death promised freedom to anyone who survived it. With so many dead, serfs skilled in farming would be prized once lords became desperate to have their fields ploughed and planted; and their need would give men and women the chance to bargain themselves out of bondage and demand payment for their work.
Life as a serf in the 14th century
I love the way Minette Walters immerses the reader in the mid-14th century. The slavery of the serf system, the brutality of lords who owned the people who worked on their land and did as they pleased to them.
The serfs – and their children – were bonded for life to their lord. They were never allowed to even leave the land without his permission.
An isolated existence for all
Lady Anne’s spoilt and tempestuous daughter, Eleanor, rebels against her mother’s attempt to work with the serfs instead of whipping them into submission.
Eleanor tells her mother that she will leave when the plague is over and tell the lords of her mother’s heresy. Lady Anne points out that nobody will know that Eleanor is the daughter of Sir Richard of Develish if there is nobody left in Develish to vouch for her. After all, nobody outside of Develish has seen Eleanor in many years.
It becomes clear that the isolation Lady Anne has imposed on Develish for their protection from the plague is not very different from the status quo.
For fans of Minette Walters’ crime fiction
Minette Walters is best known for her best-selling crime fiction books, with several adapted for television including The Ice House and The Dark Room.
I must confess I haven’t read any of her crime fiction. My mother, however, is a massive Minette Walters fan and has read every book she’s ever written. Apparently Walters’ last couple of books had become very dark in tone, but The Last Hours is much lighter – a refreshing break.
Her compelling storytelling and ability to hold the reader in suspense is still very much evident in this new genre. Walters herself sees many parallels between crime and historical fiction. As she told Booktopia:
I don’t feel the move from crime to history is very great… In both there is always a mystery at the heart of it.
Listen to Minette Walters speak to Booktopia about her latest book, The Last Hours:
Disclosure: I received a copy from the publisher for the purpose of review. This post contains affiliate links.
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