Thursday 4 January 2018

A Discovering Diamonds review of The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Amazon UK £5.69 £6.99
Amazon US $7.47 $26.47 
Amazon CA n/a

Family drama

The manor of Develish is one of the first to experience the coming of the plague. While other manors suffer mass mortality, Lady Anne uses the moat around her manor house to pen in the villagers and isolate them from the outside world in an attempt to prevent the plague from entering. Living in this community is her unhinged daughter; her new steward, a bastard-born villager; the captain of the guard, Gyles; and an assortment of other characters. Eventually the villagers know they need to leave the manor to find a source of food, and thus we discover the ravages of the plague in the outside world.

Sadly Ms Walters is not a historical novelist. She falls into almost every novice trap. Characters in the novel refer to the plague as a ‘Black Death’, a term that was not recorded until 1555 and then not even in English but Swedish to refer to a different pestilence; the power struggle, in 1348, between Norman and Anglo-Saxon is pure Hollywood in its inaccuracy, to mention the two worst offenders.
I'm afraid this is no Ken Follett.

My other anxiety about the novel was the head hopping that makes the reader wonder constantly who is speaking. By the end this leaves you rather ragged, feeling that you are watching from afar but never able to get involved in the lives of the people concerned.

That she is a mystery writer comes out strongly when a body is found, she really comes into her own in this passage which is slick and flows noticeably better, but less is made of it than could have been.

What she does get spot on is the narrow view of the world by a serf and the vast contrast between lord, servant and slave. She does labour the point a little, but it is very well drawn. She also nails the difficulty in travelling through a landscape that is not just unknown but in a world with no road signs where roads were little more than trackways was impossible to navigate with any surety and without knowing where you were, what villages and manors (not desmenes, Miss Walters) were called without asking someone.

For these two final points alone I would recommend this novel – hence it is getting a review here on Discovering Diamonds (from January 2018 we only review 4 and 5 star novels.) Few address this aspect of life in a time before public transport and maps. But I would not use this novel as an example of how to write historical fiction.

There is a sequel in the pipeline (it ends very abruptly) and I can only hope that Ms Walters does her research or finds an editor who knows the era better to help her out.

Alas, only 3 stars

© Nicky Galliers

A second opinion:

The Last Hours is the account of one demesne, Develish, and its occupants as they struggle to survive and make sense of their terrifying new world in the grip of the bubonic plague. Lady Anne of Develish is left behind with her daughter, Eleanor, when her husband, Sir Richard, heads out to the neighboring demesne of Foxcote, intending on securing a husband for Eleanor. Instead, they encounter the pestilence and death. Lady Anne, convent raised and well educated, knows enough about health and healing to understand the importance of cleanliness and quarantine, and so orders her serfs within the walls of the manor and then seals off the manor, not allowing anyone to enter or leave. Sir Richard and his retinue return to find the manor barred against them and all but one of them die outside the walls. Anne surreptitiously sends her steward, Thaddeus, a bastard serf, outside the walls on reconnaissance with the surviving member of Sir Richard’s retinue, Gyles, the captain of the guard. Eventually, Gyles is allowed to return within the walls when it is clear he does is not sick with the plague. Within Develish’s walls, serfs unused to inactivity are beginning to get stir crazy, stores are running low, and then a murder occurs. Thaddeus takes five young men, sons of the leading serfs, with him outside the walls to go in search of more supplies, and to help cover a scandal that could shatter the fragile peace Anne has created and which her daughter Eleanor seems determined to destroy.

This was a fast-paced and fun historical novel overall. The descriptions of the land and clothes were vibrant, and the effects of the plague were terrifyingly real. It seems that Walters did some thorough research on both, which is much appreciated. There were quite a few other areas that required a huge suspension of disbelief, and which were a bit too much to overcome - noblewomen with basically modern sensibilities teaching their serfs to read comes to mind - which draw away from the historical quality of the story. I think the same effect could have been achieved simply by acknowledging historical fact - so many deaths did occur that skilled serfs and farmers were needed and they could move up the social ladder in ways that hadn’t been open to them prior to the plague. Fact. Teaching the serfs to read isn’t necessary for that to have happened within the story, and it would have been more believable in the end. Just my two cents.

The characters were well developed and all were interesting, even the ones you love to hate. Anne was a more complex character than she first appears, and it becomes more apparent as the plot comes to its climax. Some intriguing questions are posed about her character and personality and I hope that they are answered in the next book. Thaddeus is intriguing, even if I don’t believe that such a man would really have existed, or not very likely, and I hope to know more about him as well. Gyles is one of my favorites and I want him to get more of the limelight. Eleanor is odious and I want to know how she ends up.

There are too many unanswered questions and I am pleased that the book is “to be continued”.  I am looking forward to the next instalment, literate serfs and all… So, a fun story, but there are definitely parts that made me roll my eyes, which means for Discovering Diamonds a low rating, for all it is well researched and has interesting characters.

© Kristen McQuinn

(note from admin: usually we do not publish low, 3 star level reviews, but Ms Walters is an established traditional author, and we felt that in this instance two honest reviews were appropriate.)

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