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…?
I liked the historical setting of The Last Hours in 1348 at the time of the Black Death. It’s well researched, giving vivid descriptions of the setting in an moated manor in the Dorsetshire countryside and of the Black Death, the plague that ravaged the population in 1348. The characters are interesting, showing the clear division between the serfs and the lord of the manor, but I thought some of them were rather one-dimensional, such as Sir Richard of Develish (Lady Anne’s husband) who is portrayed as irredeemably villainous.
I think the book as a whole is overlong and so slow in parts where the description is so detailed that it slows down the action to snail’s pace. It could have been shorter without losing any of the drama.
What really interested me was the medical development and health issues, as people struggled to understand the nature of the plague, what caused it, how it spread so quickly and how could they treat it. And what disappointed me most is the ending – there isn’t one. The last sentence reads: ‘To be continued …‘
You can watch Minette Walters talking about her book:
My thanks to the publishers and NetGalley for a digital review copy.