June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.
In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people's future - including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.
Lady Anne's people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?
And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?
Minette Walters is best known as a writer of Crime novels - since the publication of "The Ice House" in 1992, she's won the Crime Writer's Association John Creasey award for best first novel, the Mystery Writers of America Edgar award, and the CWA Gold Dagger. Walter's now turns her considerable talents to another genre - moving into the realm of Historical Fiction with "The Last Hours", and sweeping her readers into the deadly, turbulent and terrifying world of a plague ridden middle ages England.
One thing that made Walter's crime books stand out was her grasp of character, and the viewpoints she used to tell her stories - they were never straightforward books packed with gore and violence, but often offered intriguing political and social commentaries alongside thrilling plots. That's something that, you'd think, would be somewhat trickier when plunging almost a millennia into the past and looking at the Black Death - but Walters is able to combine a truly engaging and well researched historical story with characters and threads that remind the reader of contemporary life.
A big part of this, is character - and the characters of Lady Anne, Thaddeus Thurkell and Giles Startout allow Walters to explore class, gender, race and religion in fascinating, compelling fashion whilst always ensuring that these themes are integral parts of the story rather than added on to give the book a contemporary relevance. Written with an urgent prose that pulls the reader through a vividly described landscape of death and destruction, the mix of rather incredibly drawn characters embroiled in a plot that, in its essence is a genuine battle for life and survival against the odds makes this a read that I was unable to put down.
Historical detail, a thrilling, fascinating plot and vivid, relatable characters, made this a read that I'll be recommending to all and sundry. I should warn that several plot strands are left very much open-ended, but that's only served to fill me with excitement for the upcoming sequel. Bravo Minette Walters - a brave change of genre, but one that has paid off in spades!