The Last Hours by Minette Walters
I read it as a: paperback
Source: my own collection because of Book Depository! Otherwise, I would have had to wait until Aug 2018 to be able to read this in the US.
Length: 547 pp
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
The Last Hours is the account of one demesne, Develish, and its occupants as they struggle to survive and make sense of their terrifying new world in the grip of the bubonic plague. Lady Anne of Develish is left behind with her daughter, Eleanor, when her husband, Sir Richard, heads out to the neighboring demesne of Foxcote, intending on securing a husband for Eleanor. Instead, they encounter the pestilence and death. Lady Anne, convent raised and well educated, knows enough about health and healing to understand the importance of cleanliness and quarantine, and so orders her serfs within the walls of the manor and then seals off the manor, not allowing anyone to enter or leave. Sir Richard and his retinue return to find the manor barred against them and all but one of them die outside the walls. Anne surreptitiously send her steward, Thaddeus, a bastard serf, outside the walls on reconnaissance with the surviving member of Sir Richard’s retinue, Gyles, the captain of the guard. Eventually, Gyles is allowed to return within the walls when it is clear he does is not sick with the plague. Within Develish’s walls, serfs unused to inactivity are beginning to get stir crazy, stores are running low, and then a murder occurs. Thaddeus takes five young men, sons of the leading serfs, with him outside the walls to go in search of more supplies, and to help cover a scandal that could shatter the fragile peace Anne has created and which her daughter Eleanor seems determined to destroy.
This was a fast-paced and fun historical novel overall. The descriptions of the land and clothes were vibrant, and the effects of the plague were terrifyingly real. It seems that Walters did some thorough research on both, which is much appreciated. There were quite a few other areas that required a huge suspension of disbelief, and which were a bit too much to overcome – noblewomen with basically modern sensibilities teaching their serfs to read comes to mind – which draw away from the historical quality of the story. I think the same effect could have been achieved simply by acknowledging historical fact – so many deaths did occur that skilled serfs and farmers were needed and they could move up the social ladder in ways that hadn’t been open to them prior to the plague. Fact. Teaching the serfs to read isn’t necessary for that to have happened within the story, and it would have been more believable in the end. Just my two cents.
The characters were well developed and all were interesting, even the ones you love to hate. Anne was a more complex character than she first appears, and it becomes more apparent as the plot comes to its climax. Some intriguing questions are posed about her character and personality and I hope that they are answered in the next book. Thaddeus is intriguing, even if I don’t believe that such a man would really have existed, or not very likely, and I hope to know more about him as well. Gyles is one of my favorites and I want him to get more of the limelight. Eleanor is odious and I want to know how she ends up. There are too many unanswered questions and I am really excited that the book specifically said “to be continued” at the end, because I would be so unhappy otherwise.
I am eagerly looking forward to the next instalment, literate serfs and all.