THE LAST HOURS
By Minette Walters

 

Publisher: Mira  (August, 2018)
Format: Hardcover
Price: $26.99
ISBN-13: 978-0-7783-6931-8

Ebook: 978-1-488-09530-6

Kindle edition: $11.99

 

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*** This book will be released in paperback, July 2, 2019 ($18.99) and is available for pre-order at online book sources.***

 

Reviewed by Shirley Wetzel
(March, 2019)

 

July 1348: Develish, Dorsetshire. Sir Richard of Develish, never in a good mood, was even more out of sorts the day he had to travel to a neighboring manor, a two day ride. He must make the journey, however, if he wanted his fourteen year old daughter Eleanor to make a suitable marriage.

Peter of Bradmayne, a sickly, scrawny, young man, was not the spoiled Eleanor’s first choice for husband, but her father’s wealth, or lack thereof, limited her pool of suitors. There were rumors that he was not well, and Sir Richard wanted to see for himself whether he should hand over Eleanor’s dowry. Peter was indeed ill, and by the time Sir Richard and his men realized there was a deadly plague spreading across England, it was too late for Sir Richard and most of his party.

His wife, Lady Anne, had come to Develish as a fourteen year old bride. Orphaned as a child, she was raised in a nunnery. She was treated kindly, and might have stayed in that tranquil environment, but she wanted more for her life. She had a quick mind, and she received an excellent education. The demesne was unsightly and dirty when she arrived, and the serfs were unhappy with the cruelty and stinginess of their liege lord. Their lives were short and miserable, and they did not expect more than that. God had placed them where they were, and there was nothing to be done.

The young bride immediately set out to change that. Without her husband’s knowledge, she employed the methods taught to her by the nuns to improve sanitation and medical care. She treated the serfs kindly, seeing them as real people, not just chattel. She taught them to read and write, a thing unheard of in that time. In the years since, the villagers and servants came to adore her. Endemic illnesses all but disappeared, and all of them, even the children, began living longer and healthier lives.

Rumors of the sickness that turned the patient’s blood black, caused terrible pain, and resulted in death within three days had reached Develish. She brought all her people into the castle keep for protection, allowing no one to leave or enter. When Gyles Startout, her friend and Sir Richard’s captain of arms, arrived at the village with the mortally ill lord and the last few survivors of the ill-fated trip, Anne would not let them enter, no matter how much Sir Richard cursed and entreated her. Gyles showed no sign of the sickness, and stayed to attend the dying men.

As death past them by, Lady Anne began the task of overseeing two hundred souls, not knowing if anyone else was left alive. She was a woman of faith, but she believed in the Bible teachings of love for one’s fellow men and for helping those in need. She rejected the stern and punitive teachings of the Church and followed the tenant that God helps those who help themselves. With assistance from her newly-appointed Gyles Startout she set up a council with the four leaders of the community. As her right hand she chose Thaddeus Turkill, the unacknowledged son of a lazy and bitter serf. The young man was one of Lady Anne’s first success stories, fluent in French and English, highly intelligent, with strength and confidence. Together they formed plans to protect the village from outsiders with evil intent while they waited for word that the crisis had passed. Everyone was given an assignment to keep things running smoothly. When the young men grew restless and quarrelsome, Gyles and Thaddeus taught them to handle weapons. Competitions in various games helped run off their excess energy. The games proved to be so popular everyone joined in, and spirits were reasonably good.

There was one major fly in the ointment – Lady Anne’s daughter Eleanor. She had been spoiled by her father, and had his haughty disdain for those he felt beneath him. She conspired behind her mother’s back to stir up dissention. She taunted and teased the young men, and her actions led to a tragic event that threatened to destroy the newly-build community

Would the community stay together? Were there other survivors? Should they wait for the crown to appoint a new lord to rule them, or was there another path to be taken? To be continued.

The Black Plague that ravished much of Europe during the fourteenth century was devastating, but it changed the feudal culture, in many ways for the good. A shortage of laborers allowed the survivors to hire out for wages, giving them a chance for a better life and improved status. Lady Anne and her people have laid the groundwork for forming a new kind of community, and the sequel to THE LAST HOURS may show her doing just that.

History teaches the widespread effects of the Black Plague, but in this novel the reader sees what it did to one small part of England up close and personal. The victims were not just numbers and statistics, they were human beings with hopes and dreams of a better life. Some of Lady Anne’s ideas might be just a bit anachronistic, but it could have happened that way.  Surely forward-thinking, open minded, adventurous people like her were necessary to take the world out of the so-called Dark Ages and into a more science-based egalitarian society.


Copyright 2019 Shirley Wetzel. All rights reserved. Reproduction in whole or in part in any form or medium without express written permission of the author is prohibited. OMDB! and OMDB! logos are trademarks of Over My Dead Body!


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