Crime writer Minette Walters once again turns her hand to historical fiction, picking up where last year’s The Last Hours left off. As the Black Death continues its march across Europe, the small demesne of Develish owes its survival to the policies of cleanliness and isolation, put in place by Lady Anne and her closest advisor Thaddeus. But when Lady Anne and Thaddeus hatch a daring plan to secure the freedom of Develish’s serfs, enemies both inside and beyond the demesne’s walls have other ideas. Even in the face of devastating plague, the hierarchy must remain as God intended.
Given that the plague ravaged the local area, it’s pretty much a given that nothing much happens in The Turn of Midnight. After all, Walters’ demesne is aiming for survival, not expansion, so the kings and knights and battles we might expect from historical fiction of this period are understandably absent. But that’s not to say it doesn’t make for an interesting read, of course. The Develish serfs, freemen, and nobles are an interesting bunch and develop nicely, while Walters’ gripping plotline is heavy on political intrigue and deception. It’s also a little refreshing to have a romance be both obvious, yet not explicitly discussed. It might have been alluded to more in the previous book (I haven’t read it myself – more on that below!) but here it’s secondary to everything else. No longing gazes or bodice ripping here! The survival of Develish must come first, and lead characters Thaddeus and Lady Anne are competent enough in their roles to stay true to that.
That said, there is a frustrating amount of action that goes on behind the scenes in this book, as characters take a tentative step at the end of one chapter, only to be announced as captured at the start of the next. A few more action sequences to cover these skipped scenes might have balanced out the exposition of several letters and diary entries, or made the repetitiveness of the final chapters a little less, well, repetitive.
Those final chapters are both the best and worst of The Turn of Midnight. The audacity of Lady Anne and Thaddeus’ plan to have him post as a lord, only for his credentials to be called into question at the last hurdle, makes for thrilling reading, but the repeated (and somewhat anachronistic) religious and class debates slow things to a disappointing halt from time to time.
That drive for equality also hangs over the ending, resulting a conclusion that is satisfying in the context of the events of the novel, but jarring when considering the reality of the time. That Thaddeus and Lady Anne are able, thanks to the epidemic sweeping the country, to rise to occupy political positions that were previously unthinkable for characters of their gender, race, or circumstances of birth, is wonderful, but it’s hard to see things lasting beyond the novel or to expect to find their equal in recorded history. Should Walters return to Develish, this uncertainty is something I, for one, would love to see addressed. How might their relationship change as Thaddeus builds his own demesne and increases his power away from Lady Anne? And what might happen when the plague ends and other nobles return to their seats?
A list of dramatis personae opens The Turn of Midnight – a sort of “previously in Develish…” – where the events of the previous book are quickly recapped for newcomers and returning readers alike. It’s an important touch because, without it, those four hundred plus pages might be a bit of a struggle. Heavy on the detail, The Turn of Midnight is carried by its impressive characters, all of whom are shaped by events both before and during the novel’s time frame. As such, knowledge of The Last Hours is a must to really get a sense of what’s happening here. Luckily, The Turn of Midnight is captivating enough that if you haven’t already devoured Walters’ first foray into the English Middle Ages, you’ll likely be racing to backtrack once you’re done with the sequel.
THREE AND A HALF STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Minette Walter’s The Turn of Midnight is published by Allen & Unwin and is out now.