The Turn of Midnight by Minette Walters
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Published on 4th October 2018
I received a complimentary copy of this book through Netgalley in exchange for an honest review.
The year is 1349. The people of Develish have been living in quarantine under Lady Anne’s orders and have miraculously survived the plague that has been wiping the whole of England clean. However, while closing the town off permitted them to save their lives, it is now causing its own set of problems. Food supplies are running low, and unless someone is willing to venture into the outside world in search of food, the people of Develish now risk succumbing to starvation.
I will start off by saying that this is the second book in Minette Walters’ The Black Death series (the first one being called The Last Hours) and I obviously only realised that after starting to read this one (somehow, I have a knack for doing that). However there is an extensive description of the characters and their back stories at the beginning of the book which helped me get the gist of what was going on. So, it can be read as a stand-alone book, but I still feel like I would have enjoyed it more, had I read the first one beforehand.
This story for me was quite different to the historical fiction that I am used to read and it is, in part, because of Lady Anne’s character. Her husband Richard, Lord of Develish, succumbed to the pestilence so she took it upon herself to protect the rest of their people and quarantined the town in order to prevent the spreading of the disease. Lady Anne is a well educated and very compassionate woman. She is also a figure of authority and has earned her people’s respect and devotion after saving them from the plague.
The character of Thaddeus Thurkell is just as interesting. He was born a serf but gained his Lady’s admiration after proving his value to her (namely by venturing into the outside world with a group of young lads in search for food and news from neighbouring towns). He is a strong-willed, vigorous and kind character and the boys that surround him have naturally fallen under his authority. As a repayment for all he achieved for Develish, Lady Anne comes up with a plan of pretending that he is a distant relative to her and making him Lord of Athelstan, therefore raising him to the status of noble man. While the people of Develish are happy to accept this since they love and respect Thaddeus as much as they do Lady Anne, people from different towns will try and make Thaddeus out to be an impostor, mainly because he is “dark-skinned” (as described in the book) and they cannot accept that someone who isn’t white could be anything but a serf.
I’ve read some people say that Lady Anne’s beliefs and behaviours are too modern for a story set in 1349. I don’t agree with that. After all, it might be historical but it’s also a work of fiction so anything goes. I like Lady Anne, she has a lot of feminist qualities and it’s refreshing to see that portrayed in a Middle Ages society. Also, I’m sure that there were women with similar beliefs and behaviours in those days too, it’s just that they’ll have been squashed from the history books.
While I found a lot of criticism about Lady Anne in other people’s reviews, not many have mentionned Thaddeus Thurkell’s “dark skin”. It is clear from the book that Thaddeus isn’t white (though it isn’t clear what race he actually is) and that’s one of the main reason why people are so ready to accuse him of being a fraud. By raising him to the status of Lord, Lady Anne is being progressive for her time (once again, some people might argue that this is too modern to be realistic but I think it’s a nice touch, to me Minette Walters is giving representation to people of colour, who didn’t have any back in those days and it’s a breath of fresh air compared to the usual rigidness of historical fiction.)
Religion also constitutes a big part of the book as people wonder whether the plague was sent by God to punish them for their sins, and whether only sinners died from the pestilence. Differences of opinions between priests start to emerge and people can’t decide who to listen to anymore. While the people of Develish managed to survive the plague by maintaining standards of hygiene and steering clear from infected people; people from different towns believe that their fate is in God’s hands. Their devotion to God is so that they cannot fathom any other method of surviving and they will therefore label Lady Anne and her people as a bunch of heretics for daring to think differently.
When you think about it, all about this book is progressive for the time period that it is set in: the place of women and people of colour in society and the turning away from God as being the be all and end all of everything; and that’s what makes it so interesting. As I said before, historical fiction can be quite rigid as it tries to mimick the customs of the time period it reflects, but this one offers different perspectives while still remaining believable.
I would give this book a four stars out of five, only because it was harder to follow without having read the first one, but otherwise this is a very impressive piece of work by Minette Walters!