I was pretty intimidated upon opening this book to find a cast of characters spanning a couple of pages preceding the opening chapter. With several of these characters having very similar sounding names, I was beginning to get serious Game of Thrones vibes (this is not a criticism – I love the Game of Thrones books, but they’re just such an investment to read!).
Once I got into the story, though, I found I could have probably got through the novel without the cast of characters, although it was handy to have. Yes, there are several characters, as this novel is really a study of an entire village piecing itself back together in the aftermath of the plague, but I never found that I lost track of who was who.
The blurb focuses on Alice atte Wode’s missing daughter Agnes, so I thought this book would be a mystery centred around the search for Agnes and the reason for her disappearance. Those elements did feature in the plot – but as previously mentioned, this was a novel about the village as a whole, following several main characters, so I thought it a bit odd that the blurb makes it seem as if there’s only one.
If you’ve been following my reviews for a while, you’ll know that I normally prefer 19th or 20th century historical fiction – but I actually really enjoyed Carolyn Hughes’ portrayal of 14th century Britain. It definitely feels very authentic, and has clearly been well-researched, but it also feels very accessible in a similar way to Philippa Gregory’s writing.
Although it was different to what I expected, I enjoyed the opportunity to see how the plague would have affected all tiers of society within a typical English village. Not even the Lord and his family escaped unscathed, and I was really interested to see how the plague knocked down some of those class divides, giving the lower classes the power to make demands of their master.
There was a strong element of religious belief to this novel, which again is true to the time period. I’d never really considered this implication of the plague before, but it would have been quite a tumultuous event in shaping people’s faith and belief, having come at random, killing not only sinners but also the most pious in society, including men of the cloth. Though I found it interesting, I did think the author laboured it a bit too much for me, with each narrator (and there were a fair few) mentioning it at least once.
Overall this was a mixed bag for me. I loved learning more about the time period, but in terms of plot and characterisation it fell short of what I’d expected.