I have been following Minette Walters since her first thriller came out, and I think she is a superb plotter and suspense writer. So, I was intrigued when I learned she had written a historical novel, and I requested it from Netgalley.
The Last Hours follows two main characters in the year 1348. Lady Anne is the wife of Sir Richard of Develish, a stupid and cruel lord and husband who has turned their daughter, Eleanor, against her mother. With difficulty, Lady Anne has done her best to improve the life of the serfs, while Sir Richard and Eleanor treat them with disdain and cruelty. The other character is a young serf, Thaddeus, a bastard who has been mistreated by his family. Lady Anne has educated him, and he is resourceful and intelligent.
Sir Richard has arranged a marriage for Eleanor and seems to want to put it forward, so he goes to the home of the bridegroom to seal the deal. Eleanor does not want to marry the young man he selected and does not seem to realize that although she is beautiful, she comes with a small dowry so is not desirable as a wife. Nor does her personality make her so. Sir Richard has blamed the acceleration of the marriage on Lady Anne, who actually thinks they should wait.
On the visit to the bridegroom’s family, Gyles Startout, a serf who has been made a member of Sir Richard’s soldiery, notices that a lot of peasants in the nearby village are being buried at night. He tries to tell his commander about it, but the Norman commander is disdainful of a serf. Soon, though, they realize that a terrible disease has struck, and they flee.
Back at Develish, Lady Anne hears about the disease. Years ago, she instituted more sanitary measures within the demesne, and now she barricades her people within its walls, deserting the village. She has made Thaddeus her new steward, and the two do their best to protect the people. Unfortunately, Eleanor is doing her best to cause trouble.
The time period and story idea for this novel are interesting, and the characters are well drawn. However, the novel has a big flaw, the plotting. It is all too obviously the first book of at least a trilogy. Whereas most first books have their own arc, even though they may end in suspense, this one is very unsatisfying, standing alone in no respect (something that is more common with a second book in a trilogy). It goes along very well until Thaddeus takes some boys out of the demesne to look for provisions. At that point, too much attention goes to the details of how they collect food and other needed goods, and the plot bogs down. The book also ends on a very flat note. Although the entire trilogy may provide exciting, this book is not a very satisfying read.