The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

This is the sequel to The Last Hours, which followed the fortunes of a group of people during the Black Death which reached England in 1348. When I finished the first novel last year, I wasn’t sure whether I had liked it enough to want to read any more, but in the end I couldn’t resist finding out how the story would conclude.

The Turn of Midnight picks up where The Last Hours left off, with the people of Develish in Dorsetshire living in quarantine while the plague rages across the land. The reason their community has survived largely intact while others around them have been wiped out is because of the precautions taken by Lady Anne, who gathered her people within the moat that surrounds her manor house and burned the bridges, cutting them off from contact with the outside world. Now that winter has come and food supplies are running low, Lady Anne’s loyal serf Thaddeus Thurkell, accompanied by several other young men from Develish, has crossed the moat and ventured into the countryside to see what he can find.

Despite the strong leadership skills of Lady Anne and the intelligence and courage of Thaddeus, Develish has no lord, Lady Anne’s husband Sir Richard having succumbed to the plague early in the previous novel. This has left the demesne in a vulnerable position, so together Thaddeus and Lady Anne come up with a plan to protect the people of Develish…but if they fail Thaddeus could find himself in serious danger.

I’m glad I decided to read this book because I enjoyed it quite a bit more than The Last Hours. It feels faster paced, with more going on, and of course, being the second of a pair of two novels, it has a much more satisfying ending. Where the previous novel was set mainly in and around the manor of Develish, this one has a wider scope, concentrating less on Lady Anne and her family and more on Thaddeus. Towards the end of The Last Hours I felt that Thaddeus and his companions were wandering aimlessly in the countryside without much happening, but this time they have adventure after adventure as they explore desolate towns and villages, make new friends and new enemies, and carry out charades and deceptions.

My main criticism of this book is that I still couldn’t really believe in either Thaddeus or Lady Anne as realistic 14th century characters. As I mentioned in my review of The Last Hours, I found their attitudes and thought processes far too modern and wasn’t at all convinced that they, unlike the rest of the population, could have had such an accurate understanding of how the Black Death was spread and how to protect themselves from it. I was also disappointed that Lady Anne’s stepdaughter, Lady Eleanor, is reduced to such a minor role in this book. Eleanor was very much the villain of the previous novel, but near the end some reasons were given for her terrible behaviour and there were hints that she might have been about to turn a corner. She is certainly much more likeable in this second book, but sadly the transformation of her character is not explored in any depth which I thought was a wasted opportunity.

This is such an interesting period of history to read about, though, and I did find the portrayal of a country devastated by plague vivid and convincing, even if the characters were not. Minette Walters is much better known as a crime author and has moved into new territory with these two novels; I’ll be curious to see whether she writes any more historical fiction in the future.

Thanks to Allen & Unwin for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley.

The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Yes, this is the same Minette Walters who is best known for her crime novels which include The Ice House and The Dark Room. I’ve never read any of those (at least I don’t think so – I did used to read a lot more crime than I do now so it’s possible I may have read one of her books and forgotten about it) but when I saw that her new book, The Last Hours, marked a change of direction from crime to historical fiction I was immediately interested!

The Last Hours is set in 1348 on the estate of Develish in Dorsetshire. Those of you who know your 14th century history will know that the Black Death, which had been sweeping its way across Europe, reached England in 1348 – and this forms the heart of Walters’ novel. Sir Richard of Develish falls victim to the plague early in the book, leaving his wife, Lady Anne, responsible for the demesne, the household and the serfs who work the land. Lady Anne gathers everyone inside the boundaries of the moated manor, believing that cutting off contact with the outside world will be the best way to avoid the pestilence.

With so many people forced to live together in a confined space, it is inevitable that problems will arise, old rivalries will resurface and tempers will be lost. The cause of most of the trouble at Develish is Sir Richard’s daughter, Lady Eleanor, a cruel and selfish fourteen-year-old who resents having to live with the serfs. In particular, her hatred is directed at Thaddeus Thurkell, a serf who has just been promoted to the position of Lady Anne’s steward, a move which Eleanor sees as evidence of her mother’s favouritism and unnatural affection for Thaddeus. When supplies at the manor begin to run low, it is Thaddeus who volunteers to venture out into the countryside to find food – but what is the real reason for his departure?

The Last Hours was an interesting read for me as I’ve always found the Black Death a fascinating topic (sorry if that sounds morbid). Walters explores so many different aspects of the disease: the beliefs and superstitions surrounding it; the physical effects it has on the body; the theories people had as to what was causing it; and the limited methods of preventing its spread. However, I knew as soon as I started reading that at some point our protagonists would make the connection with rats and fleas and recognise the importance of hygiene and cleanliness – and I was right. It would have been so much more convincing from a historical point of view if they had continued to think the plague was a punishment from God or that it was caused by breathing bad air.

I did like both Lady Anne and Thaddeus, even if they don’t always feel like believable 14th century people, and they (along with a young maid, Isabella) were certainly the characters I had most sympathy for. Lady Eleanor is the most unpleasant, unlikeable character I’ve come across for some time. She is horrible from her first appearance and remains horrible throughout the entire book – although we do eventually learn a little bit more about her and what possibly made her the way she is, so maybe we’ll see a different side of her in the sequel.

And yes, there is going to be a sequel. I had no idea this was the first in a series until I reached the words ‘to be continued’, so be aware that if you do choose to read this book it doesn’t have a proper conclusion and we are left with lots of loose ends. At the moment I’m not sure whether I will be looking for the second book; I found this one quite slow and unevenly paced – I enjoyed the chapters set in and around Develish, but struggled to stay interested in the adventures of Thaddeus and his companions as they wandered the countryside looking for supplies. I will probably be tempted, though, as I do have lots of questions that haven’t been answered!

Thanks to Atlantic Books for providing a copy of this book for review via NetGalley