The Last Hours first came to my attention when I saw the schedule for Dorchester Literary Festival. Although I couldn’t make the event I was drawn to the story. Then I received the email from Netgalley and was tempted to request but could I justify reading with a backlog of books … after watching Minette Walters talking about The Last Hours on YouTube I couldn’t resist!
Format: Kindle Edition
File Size: 2340.0 KB
Print Length: 560 pages
Publisher: Allen & Unwin; Main edition (2 Nov. 2017)
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..?
It was so easy to imagine myself in this time with these characters. The fear and uncertainty, the power plays and politics, the secrets and lies – all drew me in. It’s possible to find these things in any close-living community throughout time isn’t it (and also in fictional dystopian/sci-fi worlds) and I thought Minette Walters exposed the shadows so very well.
I was emotionally invested in the characters from the beginning. Lady Anne’s daughter Eleanor with her petulance and high born ways with plenty of chances of redemption yet still persists in alienating herself; kick-ass heroine Lady Anne who leads her people with strength and humility, knows when to talk and when to keep quiet; Thaddeus, outer strength but inner turmoil; the leading serfs and their families who have already suffered much loss before the Black Death and have much respect for Lady Anne empowering the serfs; Hugh de Courtesmain who has never seen a demesne being led like Develish in his life and doesn’t know where he fits.
I thought the format of the story worked extremely well. One answer to a crisis leads Thaddeus and the sons of the leading serfs to leave Develish and explore the surrounding estates. So while life and all its warp and weft still happens for those still inside, we also get to experience the devastation outside. Thaddeus takes on the stern side of the father role, teaching the boys much more than practical skills. They become more introspective about who they are and overcome limits imposed from their own fathers as well as confront their own fears.
At 560 pages, The Last Hours might seem imposing! Being so caught up in the story I really didn’t want it to end. I enjoyed the pace of the story and was so disappointed when I was nearing the end. Fortunately there is a second novel 🙂 I’m desperate to find out where the story will lead me next!
As an aside, I’ve always been fascinated with Knowlton in Dorset. With their numbers decimated by the Black Death, the survivors abandoned their village and migrated elsewhere. Many times I’ve given my imagination free reign at the ruins of Knowlton Church and although The Last Hours isn’t set in Knowlton, it’s fired my imagination even more!
Crime isn’t a genre I’m drawn to so Minette Walters wasn’t an author I was familiar with. I have no comparison between her previous best sellers to this new direction into historical fiction but I can tell you that the characters in this small demesne in Dorset became my world. And I didn’t want the story to end.
The Last Hours is available to purchase now in all formats.
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