The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

turn of midnight.jpgTitle:  The Turn of Midnight

Author: Minette Walters

Genre: Historical Fiction/Mystery

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 24th October 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 472

Price: $32.99

Synopsis:For all those who love Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, and Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders comes the worldwide-bestselling Minette Walters’ compelling and fascinating historical novel of the Plague years.

As the year 1349 approaches, the Black Death continues its devastating course across England. In Dorseteshire, the quarantined people of Develish question whether they are the only survivors.

Guided by their beloved young mistress, Lady Anne, they wait, knowing that when their dwindling stores are finally gone they will have no choice but to leave. But where will they find safety in the desolate wasteland outside?

One man has the courage to find out.

Thaddeus Thurkell, a free-thinking, educated serf, strikes out in search of supplies and news. A compelling leader, he and his companions quickly throw off the shackles of serfdom and set their minds to ensuring Develish’s future – and freedom for its people.

But what use is freedom that cannot be gained lawfully? When Lady Anne and Thaddeus conceive an audacious plan to secure her people’s independence, neither foresees the life-threatening struggle over power, money and religion that follows …

~*~

Picking up soon after the end of The Last Hours, which came out last year, The Turn of Midnight begins in 1348, and ends in 1349, during the dark days of the plague coming to England, and devouring the land and people, except for those sheltering in the demesne of Develish, overseen by Lady Anne after the death of her husband, Sir Richard. Out on a journey to find survivors and information are serfs led by Thaddeus Thurkell, whom she trusts on this quest, and eventually will head out on a quest of her own to help him. Back at home, her daughter Eleanor is ill, and needs care and help to survive in the absence of her mother. As the novel progresses, truths and scandals threaten to come out about Thaddeus, Eleanor, and religious leaders continue their plot against Lady Anne, threatened by her knowledge and authority as a woman who oversees Develish. The Turn of Midnight is the epic conclusion to The Last Hours and wraps up the threads that began in that book and leads to a conclusion that is satisfying and enjoyable, ensuring that the characters all get their stories wrapped up and resolved nicely.

This duology explores a time in history – medieval history and the plague, known as the pestilence throughout the novel, and the dynamics of power between the classes – the nobles and the serfs, and the religious figureheads, and their roles in the demesne, as well as gender and the ways the religious figures try to use claims of heresy, and other accusations against Lady Anne to take over – will they succeed, or will the demesne remain in Lady Anne’s control?

Allied with Lady Anne are the household staff she leaves in charge of Eleanor and the household, much to the chagrin of the religious factions. In the fourteenth century, religion played an important role, and despite being religious, Lady Anne’s skills and desires to teach Eleanor and Isabella were frowned upon by the church. It is also a novel of humanity at its best and worst. At its best, Lady Anne’s decision to bring in the healthy people of all classes and ages, saving her demesne from the plague. It is a novel filled with history, and intrigue, and mysteries that are woven in and out, throughout each perspective that is told, back and forth between the quest and the demesne and what is happening, ensuring that story is given a full body and dense, yet amazingly intricate threads and characters that revolve around a variety of issues around gender, class and religion that are still in play today, and that still affect people all around the world today in a variety of ways.

Like other historical fiction, the themes are universal, ideas around humanity and destruction, but placed in a different setting, and testing people in different ways and with different societal implications and challenges that change and evolve over time. It is one of those novels which is dense and intense, yet at the same time, summons you and begs you to read on, because there is so much to know, so many unanswered questions that need to be resolved. It does this nicely, and in a satisfying way that shows the expectations of people are not always right, and that people who try to undermine those they wish to will not always succeed.

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The Book of Colours by Robyn Cadwallader

book of colpursTitle:  The Book of Colours

Author: Robyn Cadwallader

Genre: Historical Fiction, Literary Fiction

Publisher: HarperCollins/4th Estate

Published: 1st May 2018

Format: Paperback

Pages: 368

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: From Robyn Cadwallader, author of the internationally acclaimed novel The Anchoress, comes a deeply profound and moving novel of the importance of creativity and the power of connection, told through the story of the commissioning of a gorgeously decorated medieval manuscript, a Book of Hours.

London, 1321: In a small shop in Paternoster Row, three people are drawn together around the creation of a magnificent book, an illuminated manuscript of prayers, a book of hours. Even though the commission seems to answer the aspirations of each one of them, their own desires and ambitions threaten its completion. As each struggles to see the book come into being, it will change everything they have understood about their place in the world. In many ways, this is a story about power – it is also a novel about the place of women in the roiling and turbulent world of the early fourteenth century; what power they have, how they wield it, and just how temporary and conditional it is.

Rich, deep, sensuous and full of life, Book of Colours is also, most movingly, a profoundly beautiful story about creativity and connection, and our instinctive need to understand our world and communicate with others through the pages of a book.

~*~

AWW-2018-badge-roseIn the fourteenth century, bookmaking was an art, a combination of trades, where a scribe or scrivener, would write the manuscript, a limner would illuminate the text, and finally, the book binder, who would bring the parchment pages together within leather bindings.  In 1321, Will Asshe is an apprentice to a small shop that creates illuminated religious texts for wealthy clients, under John, and his wife Gemma, who have their own secrets about who really decorates the manuscripts of the books of hours that Wat Scrivener delivers to them, ordered by noblemen for their families and prayer purposes. Will is an apprentice to John, and he watches Gemma as she paints and writes a book calledThe Art of Illuminationto pass down her son – each chapter begins with a section from the book Gemma is working on. As each person works on their own section in preparation for the book binder, they realise that they each have to find a way to work together and not let their own ideas of power or what the book should be take-over – it is a commission for Lady Mathilda, whose story is woven throughout the book, with her sections in 1322, when she has the book, and is sharing it with her daughters – interspersed with the intriguing and complex process that had delivered the book to her and the risks that those who created it took, with a backdrop of famine, and war that divided loyalties and affected businesses and the dealings they had with Lady Mathilda.

As the mysteries thicken and loyalties are questioned. those working on the book will find themselves questioning what they are doing and why, and what will happen if their secrets are revealed.

The Middle Ages are a period where religion was a strong, often defining force in people’s lives, and where the classes were often more defined, as were expectations of what men and women could do. As in this book, it is the male limners given the credit, though Gemma certainly had an important role to play – it is possible she represents the female limners who were never accepted into the guilds for the profession but nonetheless undertook limner work on valued manuscripts such as a book of hours.

What I enjoyed about this book was the way the book of hours being created for Lady Mathilda reflected the personalities of Will, Wat and Gemma, and John – whose contributions to the book and hushed secrets about its creation and why things happened as they did have to be kept for as long as possible from Southflete, the head of the guild, and the worry of what would happen if he found out. The plot and the characters flowed together effectively and the power that they each exercised – not just over the book and their duties, but over each other, and family.

I also enjoyed the prominence of the role of women – Lady Mathilda as a noblewoman, and Gemma as a wife, mother and limner, who had been taught to paint and read by her father as a child. The power these women have is temporary and can be taken away in an instant, but when they have power, they hold onto it and yield it to garner the best outcomes for themselves, their duties and their families. At the same time, they use the power within the confines of their time and place, and to their advantage, whilst maintaining the subordinate position expected of them by those around them.

Throughout the book, the characters are linked by the creativity they exhibit – through words, through painting and through using the pictures to tell a story if they can’t read, and the marginalia that decorated the book alongside the larger, religious images, and the communication of ideas through an image that to all but those in the know, might not understand the meaning behind it.

Overall, it is a book of creativity and mystery, set against a backdrop of uncertainty for all, and where a manuscript such as the one created in this book had immense value and hid the secrets of its creators and those who ordered it.

An interesting book for those who enjoy stories about power and history, and where the relationships weave in and out of the story, but don’t define every aspect of it.

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The Last Hours by Minette Walters

Title: The Last Hoursthe last hours.jpg

Author: Minette Walters

Genre: Historical Fiction

Publisher: Allen and Unwin

Published: 27th September 2017

Format: Paperback

Pages: 568

Price: $32.99

Synopsis: For most, the Black Death is the end. For a brave few, it heralds a new beginning.

When the Black Death enters England through the port of Melcombe in Dorseteshire in June 1348, no one knows what manner of sickness it is or how it spreads and kills so quickly.

The Church proclaims it a punishment from God but Lady Anne of Develish has different ideas. With her brutal husband absent, she decides on more sensible ways to protect her people than the daily confessions of sin recommended by the Bishop. Anne gathers her serfs within the gates of Develish and refuses entry to outsiders, even to her husband.

She makes an enemy of her daughter by doing so, but her resolve is strengthened by the support of her leading serfs … until food stocks run low and the nerves of all are tested by their ignorance of what is happening in the world outside. The people of Develish are alive. But for how long? And what will they discover when the time comes for them to cross the moat?

Compelling and suspenseful, The Last Hours is a riveting tale of human ingenuity and endurance against the worst pandemic known to history. In Lady Anne of Develish – leader, saviour, heretic – Walters has created her most memorable heroine to date.

From the press release: 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. A culture of terror and superstition quickly sweeps across the land as news of the Black Death travels far and wide.

In the demesne 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 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 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 safety of the demesne? And how safe is anyone in Develish when a dreadful event threatens the uneasy status quo…?

~*~

It’s 1348 and The Black Death, known in the fourteenth century, has arrived in Dorsetshire, England. It has come upon them quietly, with the arrival of Lady Anne’s husband back from a quest to find daughter Eleanor a husband. Aged just fourteen, Eleanor will quickly learn some harsh truths about her life, and the world around her. In an effort to prevent the pestilence from entering the demesne, Develish, Lady Anne instructs the serfs to be brought inside, and will not allow anybody across the moat, or inside – including her husband. Whilst the Church is driving the message home that the pestilence is a punishment from God, Lady Anne protects her people without daily confession. Labelled a heretic for turning away from the Church at this time, and finding new ways to keep the pestilence at bay, Lady Anne is supported wholly by loyal, leading serfs, but makes an enemy out of her daughter. With food stores running low, will Develish continue to be the haven that Lady Anne has tried to create? Or will everyone, including Lady Anne and Eleanor, begin to fray at the edges and turn on each other?

The Black Death and the Middle Ages is not a period of time I have encountered often in literature – it is a period of time that was as significant in history as Culloden, Mary Queen of Scots and the First and Second World Wars – and I seem to have encountered more stories that use these other events and people or aspects of these events and people as a basis for the story. The Last Hours looks to be the first of at least two books, maybe more, as there is a preview for the follow-up out next year, and given the ending, I came away in search of more answers, but still enjoyed the story.

Placing a female hero at the centre of the story in a time when a woman’s position in society was determined by the men around her, and having everyone see her as the authority was executed wonderfully – as there were still reminders from Eleanor and Father Anselm that Lady Anne’s authority would be cut short when another Lord from another demesne arrived and took control of Develish. With the turning tide of the pestilence, Lady Anne’s daughter feels the strain of what is going on and what is to come, and begins to take her anger out on those around her – though little do they know what she is hiding from them, something that she herself is perhaps unaware of at first – and which I felt shaped her character. She was hard to like, whereas her mother was a likeable character, and Minette has done well at showing the breadth of personalities amongst the serfs and the others at Develish.

minetteEach of these characters have flaws and strengths that reflect the fragility of humanity and religion, revealing these flaws for what they are and showing that they do not make someone a whole person. The flaws in religion are revealed through the doctrine of absolving sins to make the pestilence go away, but still seeing those that undertake this act dying within days or weeks of contracting it. And so, Lady Anne posits a different view – that piety or lack thereof, is not the cause, and a faithful serf and six others set out, across the moat and into the unknown to find out what is happening beyond Develish and to bring back supplies. But will they work out the source of the pestilence on their journey?

The Last Hours is a gripping novel of intrigue and explores an historical event that devastated so many during the fourteenth century, and coupled with a terrible event that threatens to rock the status quo of Develish, these two events will certainly bring devastation in more ways than one to the demesne, and shake the foundations to the core. And is Lady Anne a saviour, or a heretic? Either way, she is a memorable heroine, and I hope to see more of her soon. Those who enjoy historical fiction with a hint of subversiveness and mystery will enjoy this book.

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