The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters
The sequel to the well received, The Last Hours, set in a small moated manor house in England in 1379, bracing itself against the scourge of the Black Death, is just as engrossing. Published in 2019, I have only just read it and was struck by the parallels to the pandemic raging across the world today. It is all there, misinformation, sometimes by those in authority striving to keep their power intact, people using fear to become wealthy, people not believing the sensible advice, and the manor house locking itself down against those wanting to come across the moat to its safety.
Milady, Lady Ann Develish, now a widow, after refusing to allow her sick husband across the moat, has to fight to retain her authority. She and her promoted serf, Thaddeus, run the place tightly. He has toured the surrounding countryside, gathering information, assessing the damage, developing his ideas about how the plague spread. He and Milady decide that those wanting to find safety must quarantine themselves beside the moat until they have had two weeks symptom free.
But she must fight the detractors, those who do not want to see the old order of landowners and serfs upset, those who do not believe that women and low born have a right to education or a voice, those who uphold the strictest interpretations of the church.
Her steward, a nasty self seeking man has designs on her and her husband’s wealth but rebuffed, makes plans to thwart her. He calls her out as a heretic, citing her freedom with her serfs, her relationship with Thaddeus, and the way she deals with the plague going against the church’s teachings. When Thaddeus braves the criticism, taking on the mantle of her cousin, a lord, the tension is tightly held, readers wanting to turn each page to see how they get away with this deception.
And in the background to this fine story we see the ravages of the plague and can compare it with what is going on in our world at the moment. The similarities are in evidence, reminding us of how easy it is to spread lies and deceive populations. The arguments Milady and Thaddeus present to both the lord and the priest repudiate the position held by authorities for centuries, disallowing women and anyone but the wealthy to have a voice.
Themes: Medieval life, Black Death, Plague, Pandemic, Power, Authority, Medieval church.