Book Review: The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters

The Turn of Midnight by Minette WaltersThe Turn of Midnight is an epic tale based around the precarious struggle for control in the wake of the Black Death in 1348. It follows on directly from the end of The Last Hours, in which Lady Anne of Develish had quarantined her people to protect them from the disease. It seems that, outside of Develish, very few have survived, and those who are left soon begin to realise that the world around them has changed beyond all recognition.   

The novel begins with a helpful summary of events from the previous book, in which Thaddeus Thurkell (a bastard born serf) has been promoted to the role of Steward by Lady Anne, and has taken it upon himself to explore the surrounding area in search of food, taking with him five teenage serfs. It was also his intention to remove them from harm, away from accusation in the wake of a mysterious death.

Meanwhile, Lady Anne must keep the peace at home, whilst her own daughter (Lady Eleanor) lashes out in anger at anyone who gets in her way, and others are becoming restless after months of quarantine and lack of contact with the outside world. They are vulnerable to attack, and uncertain how long they will be able to survive if the pestilence continues.

The shock and fear of such a time is aptly described, and the plot bristles with tension at every moment, but Thaddeus and his crew sense that the power of the Black Death has come to an end, leaving behind it something far more unsettling – a world loosely held together by religious belief and oppression, whilst those in authority are conspicuously absent.

Lady Anne and Thaddeus Thurkell must concoct a daring plan to secure their own future, persuading the Steward at Blandeforde to believe that Thaddeus is an English nobleman. Not only are their own lives at stake, but also the freedom and future of every man, woman and child in Develish.

This is a gripping, entrancing read, centred around a unique moment in English history, when the Black Death struck both rich and poor, innocent and guilty, planting a seed of doubt in the minds of those who did survive, that perhaps the disease was not sent by God as a punishment for sin, and providing an opportunity for downtrodden serfs to rise up against the arrogance of Norman lords.

Lady Anne and her retinue are determined to spread the word, to persuade those they meet that medicine, hygiene and quarantine can be just as powerful as prayer, and to show them that women should be treated with courtesy and respect, and that those in power, even the priests, should not be obeyed without question. Lady Anne follows a radical theology of her own – that of kindness and forgiveness, rather than hierarchy and punishment.

The grand finale is a great battle of wills, as Thaddeus and Lady Anne must persuade ordinary men and women to dismiss their ignorance, and to see the evidence of hypocrisy in their overlords and masters. Together, The Last Hours and The Turn of Midnight form an incredible tale, which perfectly depicts the fear, uncertainty and sense of imminent change that hangs in the air, as 1348 gives way to 1349. They are primarily novels of historical fiction, rather than crime, but they are full of tension and unease, as much as in any crime novel.

The Turn of Midnight will be published by Allen and Unwin on 4th October 2018.

Declaration: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.