Review published on September 23, 2017.
The Last Hours is a Medieval historical saga that will appeal to a wide audience because the story has a lot of charm and the main characters are likeable. Even though the novel is set in dark times it is an engaging and rewarding read. Spending time with the Develish community at the heart of the novel is enjoyable and the research is worn lightly. There is no mention of the wider social and religious turmoil caused by the calamity, but this means that the claustrophobic atmosphere of the isolated community and the absence of knowledge of what is happening elsewhere works well. The Last Hours is well plotted, entertaining and inventive. Walters is a natural storyteller and her empathy for the people, time and place stands out. The idea for the novel came from the discovery that plague graves exist at sites around her Dorset house. Given the macabre story, that is, the black death of 1348, Walters defied my expectations with The Last Hours, which is a surprisingly light and easy read despite the author’s previous reputation.
It is brave to change genre, specially after a ten-year absence (Walters avoids engaging with speculation about the hiatus). Still, after so long it must feel like starting all over again. Given the nature of Walters’ very dark psychological crime novels I don’t think she can rely on her old audience coming with her for this historical journey. Walters admits she had enough of crime writing, ironically her kind of thriller has never been more popular. So The Last Hours has to woo a new readership. Particularly as this is clearly the beginning of a series or at least a two novel project (curiously this is not indicated in the blurb as far as I can see). I think The Last Hours will appeal to lovers of epic medieval historical fiction; it is certainly a long read. Followers of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge novels would like Develish too and it may even appeal to lovers of more overtly romantic tales.
Walters has imagined what it was like for the people of fourteenth century Dorset during the black death. The apocalypse turned the world upside down and ravaged the continent of Europe, wiping out half of the population. It did not discriminate between young and old, rich and poor. In The Last Hours the serfs of Develish have been confined to the borders of the estate, the demesne, for generations (they are the property of Sir Richard). Life is harsh. The advent of the plague comes as a bewildering and mysterious event, the Bishop declares it a punishment from God. Lady Anne is determined to do what she can for the small community she finds herself in charge of. Walters manages to convey the sense of isolation and desperation of the community, not just geographically but intellectually cut off from the world. It is a story of those who rise to the challenge and become better people and those who fail. The characters are bold and for the most part faithful to their original sketching. Lady Anne, the protector and progressive lady of the house, her daughter, Eleanor, the beautiful but selfish girl capable of cruelty and stupidity and Thaddeus Thurkell, illegitimate but destined to be a hero, a man of strong moral fibre. Brutal and ignorant, Sir Richard is away securing the marriage of his daughter to Peter of Bradmayne when the black death strikes. When news of the plague reaches Develish, Lady Anne orders the isolation of the people of the demesne within the perimeter of the moat. None suspect just how testing the next few months will be as they face a great many trials and tribulations.
I must admit that it took me a little while to warm to this novel and I was never totally convinced by it. Walters establishes the three main characters in detail too early. I was imagining scenarios for their future and almost expecting a Mills and Boon plot. I was so pleased when the story began to develop and some of the obvious clichés did not emerge. Although there are no genuine surprises in the arc of the story it is always interesting. Historical novels depend upon the writer’s ability to create a credible past world and Walters manages this very well. Personally, I prefer my historical fiction with a bit more depth and reflection, but this is an ideal read for those who just want a good story well told. Snuggle up in a chair on a cold winter night and enjoy.
Paul Burke 3/4
The Last Hours by Minette Walters
Allen & Unwin 9781760632137 hbk Nov 2017