June, 1348: the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in the county of Dorsetshire. Unprepared for the virulence of the disease, and the speed with which it spreads, the people of the county start to die in their thousands.
In the estate of Develish, Lady Anne takes control of her people’s future – including the lives of two hundred bonded serfs. Strong, compassionate and resourceful, Lady Anne chooses a bastard slave, Thaddeus Thurkell, to act as her steward. Together, they decide to quarantine Develish by bringing the serfs inside the walls. With this sudden overturning of the accepted social order, where serfs exist only to serve their lords, conflicts soon arise. Ignorant of what is happening in the world outside, they wrestle with themselves, with God and with the terrible uncertainty of their futures.
Lady Anne’s people fear starvation but they fear the pestilence more. Who amongst them has the courage to leave the security of the walls?
And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo..?
This book took my breath away. It’s a strong historical fiction set during the Black Death and my only complaint was coming to the end and finding out it’s a cliffhanger!
For those of you who really hate cliffhangers, it’s not terrible as they go – most of the narrative is tied up neatly and ready to keep going in the next instalment but I wish I’d known going in that there would be more in the future to avoid the anxiety at the end when I realised I was running out of pages and some intrigues had gone unresolved.
Speaking of intrigues, there are some absolute beauties in this book. The slightest mentions of different things during the course of the book can turn into a main plot point at any time and it’s so satisfying to see it so elegantly done rather than dropping a huge hint early on and teasing you for the next 300 pages. The writing style is subtle and wonderful, I had no problems reading this book in long sittings and my attention never strayed.
The chapters alternate between the perspectives of Lady Anne, a well educated and kind woman who is now left to care for her demesne (I really need to look up how to pronounce that word before the next in the series) and Thaddeus, her enigmatic and intelligent steward. Though they’re both very clever and strong characters, we never learn much about their private thoughts and they have several surprises in store as we learn their histories.
This book shows how people might have survived the plague with the knowledge of diseases at the time, Lady Anne knows that good hygiene is important in keeping away disease, so she applies what she knows to keep everyone safe. She doesn’t have any unlikely wisdom that no-one of the time would have, which keeps the story believable.
Apart from surviving the plague, the story also includes a lot about the serf/landowner divide and about how societies would change when kept penned in tight to avoid the outside world. It explores the question of what social changes there would be in the country when the majority of people have died, and it’s fascinating.
If you’re a fan of historical fiction and like me, you like some real-life details for authenticity (pustules and latrines. Wooooo!); Minette Walters has a treat for you.
**Thank you NetGalley for a free copy of this book at my request in exchange for an honest and unbiased review**