Medieval fiction has never really been my thing, so this was a bit of a deviation from my normal reading profile, although I have read and enjoyed Minette Walter’s books in the past – but what a great book! To pique my interest further, I live in the area in which it is set!
Set in the 1300s, the Black Death comes to England, affecting among others the estate of Develish, a large estate which includes over 200 bonded serfs presided over by Sir Richard and Lady Anne and their beautiful, spoilt 14 year old daughter, Eleanor. The story opens on a hot summer day with Sir Richard riding off with his daughter’s dowry to finalise the arrangements for her marriage to Peter of Bradmayne. While Sir Richard is away, rumours of a ‘sickness’ gather strength in Bradmayne; as death begins to stalk the estate, and the body count begins to rise rapidly, Sir Richard abandons plans for his daughter’s union and makes a bid for home and safety. Meanwhile, in his absence, Lady Anne has been making plans of her own. Educated by nuns in the management of sickness she gathers her people within the walled boundaries of Develish, pulls up the drawbridge that crosses the moat and quarantines them from the rest of the country, refusing entry even to Sir Richard who has succumbed to the sickness on his return journey. Of the men that left for Bradmayne, only one has returned alive.
Living all together, both free and bonded men, with little to do and with no information from the outside world, fear of starvation begins to grow and tensions rise. Events reach a climax and in an attempt to limit the affects on the quarantined people, Thaddeus Thurkell, Lady Anne’s trusted steward, takes a group of young men and ventures out to gather information on the Black Death and what is happening in the rest of England.
This was an intense and gripping story which despite its length and my children(!) I managed to read in 36 hours; it was made that much more interesting because ‘The Last Hours’ is a fictional representation of real events in an area I know well, and the Black Death has always held a morbid fascination for me. I was delighted to see on the very last page that there will be a sequel – and ultimately there will also hopefully be a drama!
I give this book 4 stars.