My friends, I want to tell you about this book. Minette Walters is one of my favorite crime fiction authors, and I was psyched when I found out that she was writing a work of historical fiction. The length is intimidating - it's a whopping 547 pages - but please don't let this keep you from reading this wondrous tome. It's everything I love in fiction, and the pages just flew by. I tore through it in two days and one of those days was a work day, which just goes to show you how unputdownable THE LAST HOURS was.
THE LAST HOURS is set in medieval times, during the 13th century. There are two main characters: Lady Anne and Thaddeus. Lady Anne is a lady who was raised in a nunnery, and therefore unusual in that she knows how to practice good hygiene and how to read. She is married to a man she despises, for reasons that we learn later on in the book. Thaddeus, on the other hand, is a serf, and a bastard. The only person who has ever shown him consistent kindness is Lady Anne. He is intelligent and hard-working and willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, no matter how unsavory.
Lady Anne's husband, Richard, leaves their demesne in Develish to go to a nearby province to meet with their daughter's husband-to-be. In this other demesne, the serfs are terrified and people are falling ill. His chief steward, Gyles, who is loyal to Lady Anne, begs that they turn back, but Richard is too busy wining and whoring, and refuses - until the lord of the manor also sickens, as well as several of Richard's own men. Luckily, Lady Anne finds out that her husband is ill from a pestilence that is fast-acting and contagious in a way beyond anything that they've ever known before, and she boards up the manor, destroys the drawbridge, and secures their raft to the other side of the moat.
In the absence of their lord, Lady Anne becomes their liege lord, and because one of her ways at getting back at her husband was to educate the serfs on their estate, Develish finds social order turned upon its head as serfs and nobles alike must band together to survive against what we know is the Black Death. Here, the book takes on an almost post-apocalyptic flavor - survival at its most basic, against basically all of the odds. What makes it even better is that it becomes a study in sexism, feminism, and classism, portrayed in a way that many books try and fail to do because they attempt to do these things in a heavy-handed way that goes against the realistic conventions of the times.
I loved this book. It's like a better version of PILLARS OF THE EARTH, in that it tells the story of the common people, but does so within a feminist lens, exploring the potential of women who were given power (albeit in a limited way). All of the characters in this book are great. Obviously Lady Anne was my favorite, followed closely by Thaddeus, Gyles, and Isabella. There are truly loathsome characters in here too, despicable in the way that characters in Game of Thrones are despicable (but not quite so cartoonishly evil in their caricaturing), like Richard (fuck him), Hugh (fuck him, too), and Eleanor (fuck, fuck, fuck). Eleanor reminded me a bit of Joffrey, actually, but then as I got to know more about her story and where she was coming from, she gained extra layers that Joffrey never received as a character, which I thought was really great, because we're often far too quick to villanize female characters without really giving them a proper motive, in my opinion.
This might not be the go-to book for many people and I get that historical fiction can be an intimidating thing for some people because it might feel like work or research, but if you feel like venturing out of your literary comfort zone, you should definitely start with THE LAST HOURS. It's so good. It's fast-paced, character-driven, and gritty in the same compelling way that many sci-fi and fantasy novels are. I don't think you'll be disappointed if you pick this one up. How could you be?
Thanks to Netgalley/the publisher for the review copy!
5 out of 5 stars