“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..?”
Although I've heard a lot about Minette Walters, I've never read any of her work before. As someone with a great affection for historical fiction, especially surrounding the middle ages, the black death and suchlike, I took the opportunity dive into this advance copy from Netgalley on a long train Journey.
The Last Hours is set in 1348 in the small town and demesne of Develish, Dorsetseshire. Sir Richard of Develish, a thoroughly unpleasant man rules the roost, and while he is away attempting to arrange the sale of his daughter for a paltry dowry, his wife, Lady Anne takes charge of the town and people. When they learn that a pestilence being called 'The Black Death' has started to spread throughout the country and has killed hundreds of people within a few days, they begin to wonder what they have done for their God to punish them in such a way. Lady Anne turns the Manor House & grounds into a safe haven, by burning the bridge to the village and banning anyone from going to the other side.
There are, unsurprisingly, problems within the community - not least because a woman is taking charge and telling the men what to do. There are educated Lords and serfs living and working elbow to elbow, supplies are running low and the threat of the pestilence making an appearance is ever present. The characters are beautifully written, multi-faceted and very well defined, each with their own little part in history - and their often fractious and strained relationships help illustrate the story as it flows.
The Last Hours is an enjoyable and thought-provoking read, although I did find it a little slow. I was pleased to learn there will be a sequel where we will be able to catch up with the main protagonists and see where life takes them next.