The year is 1348 and we are in Dorsetshire, specifically the feudal manor of Develish. Lady Eleanor of Develish is betrothed to the son of the nearby demesne of Brademayne but rumour has it his health is failing so her father and his soldiers set out to Brademayne to check out the truth of this rumour before her dowry exchanges hands. Little do they know that a relentless plague is about to descend on this quiet, rural land.
Far from painting a rural idyll Minette Walters provides a down and dirty look at the medieval feudal system where the general populace are serfs bound to their masters. In that binding they also bind their sons and grandsons into perpetuity to the land of their master. Depending on their benefices for food and shelter whilst toiling for no real reward.
This novel has much in common with the seeping Pillars Of Heaven by Ken Follett but it's immediacy is more appealing and the characters are rich and fully formed. From the bastard son of Will Thurkell raised to stewardship by the indomitable Lady Anne who is determined that all under Lord Richard's ownership have the opportunity to learn to read, write and count in order to better their situation and maybe be able to buy their way from servitude. To the spoilt, brattish Lady Eleanor who is determined that her Norman blood makes her superior to the Saxon serfs. Even the smaller players in the book, the serf Isabella and the priest Father Anselm are distinctive people with complex personalities that shine from the page.
When talking of slavery you immediately think of cotton plantations in the American states and forget that it was a way of life for countless thousands for generation upon generation in England. The feudal system meant all but the Lords and Barons were either indentured slaves or those who had been lucky enough to buy their way out of it as Freemen. Conditions of living were dictated by your master and living cheek by jowl with filth and disease was seen as a normal part of existence.
Then came the Black Death with it's far reaching sweep rendering whole communities decimated. Those who did survive would no longer be bound by their sworn fealties as manpower was sorely depleted and those fit to work the fields could name their price - at least this is what Lady Anne tells her people will happen.
I am not surely how factually accurate this novel is, after all fact can be stranger than fiction, but it is a compelling read. My only real gripe is that it ended with so much unresolved and those horrible words To Be Continued...
I would recommend this as a must read and cannot wait for the next book to continue the saga.
I RECEIVED A FREE COPY OF THIS BOOK FROM READERS FIRST IN EXCHANGE FOR AN HONEST REVIEW.