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Review, The Last Hours by Minette Walters

cover, The Last Hours by Minette Walters

I had some trouble entering into this novel because, initially, none of the characters are particularly likable. Once the plague kicked in, however, the most unlikable of the characters biffed it (he was quite despicable).

Then the novel became a character intrigue about power, manipulation, and how people stay alive in the middle of a complete upheaval of everything in their known universe. Super funsies!

Several character arcs and plotlines are very interesting, especially Lady Anne and Thaddeus. It’s always nice when there are a few characters who do not follow the conventional rules of the day, either because they are morally different or because they are far more benevolent and kind. There are quite a few of these self-serving manipulators in this novel, and Lady Anne sees through them all.

One problem, however, is that people in the Middle Ages didn’t know about germs. Basic sanitation, hygiene, hand or body washing to prevent illness, none of it. The plague, called The Black Death because it made the flesh become necrotic and black, was a complete mystery. They thought it was punishment by God for some sin. Some church folk scapegoated Romani and Jewish peoples and killed them. Yet the main character in this novel, Lady Anne, has enough presence of mind and foresight to draw everyone in her demesne inside the land protected by the moat, and to not let anyone who is infected inside. She instructs people to wash themselves in the moat, because the water will cleanse them of putrefaction. She questions the authority of the parish priest, and says that Jesus talks in the Bible about love and mercy.

The spread of the plague through Europe. Source: Wikipedia.

Really: basic sanitation, handwashing, pooping and peeing in a latrine, separating people who are sick, the absence of fleas. All of these were largely unknown to the common person in the Middle Ages. Medieval medicine books talk a lot about “humours” and generally regard illness as a theological problem rather than a physical one.

There is quite a bit of rape in this novel, although it is not explicitly described or glorified. Many women are raped in this story, but the raping happens offstage or is told in flashbacks, always from the women’s point of view. This is not a medieval way of looking at things, and I appreciated that from the novelist. In the middle ages, women were considered property, counted amongst the livestock and acres of land under the lord’s rule. So were the children and men, all the serfs. The novel does explore how vulnerable women were to assault at all times, as well as how the “good men” could be separated from the “evil ones” by their attitudes toward women and men of lesser status. The codification of each person of society according to rank was well described. Children born out of wedlock had no protection.

The Dance Macabre (The Dance of Death) was a common motif in the late Middle Ages. Source: Wikipedia.

So if you can suspend your disbelief long enough to allow for: a medieval woman educated by nuns becomes Lady of the household. She prevents her Lord husband from raping the serf women at will and later teaches her peasants to build a moat around the castle, read, write, and implicitly challenge church authority. The moat becomes useful to keep the plague out… then you will get along fine with this novel.

I loved the Middle Ages when I was younger. I was utterly fascinated by medieval castles and nobility, and jousts and whatnot. It seemed to me that this was a time in history when it was easier for people to find meaning, to live a good but simple life. It seemed like such a magical time of knights and kings and princesses, and possibly dragons, ha! In college, I studied the origins of the Robin Hood myths, as well as the traveling pageant plays that toured up and down the towns in the summer.

photo-of-lichtenstein-castle bright summer day
Lichtenstein Castle in Germany

What would life be like without running water and electricity? What completely ridiculous things they believed! Like, “the earth is flat,” and “God brings babies.” What was it like to be illiterate, as was at least 85% of the population? The people who told the stories (the church) held so much power.

The novel’s descriptions of the medieval church’s hold over the clergy and the common folk were accurate, although the contempt of the author for such authoritarianism is quite clear. It’s difficult to imagine how much power the church had over both common folk and nobility alike before the plague killed about 1/3 of the population of Europe. There were a few places in the novel where a modern questioning of the church’s medieval authority was visible. May I add that the priest in this story was sketchy as f*, but he knew who had the power, that’s for sure.

I would recommend this book to amateur history buffs, and people who want to know more about the middle ages but who don’t want to slog through Chaucer.

Anyway. I’m off to the library to get the sequel! See you later.