Monday, 6 March 2017

Fortune's Wheel by Carolyn Hughes
Series: The Meonbridge Chronicles #1
Release Date: 7th November 2016
Publisher: Silverwood Fiction
Genres:  Historical Fiction

Plague-widow Alice atte Wode is desperate to find her missing daughter, but her neighbours are rebelling against their masters and their mutiny is hindering the search.

June 1349. In a Hampshire village, the worst plague in Englands history has wiped out half its population, including Alice atte Wode’s husband and eldest son. The plague arrived only days after Alice’s daughter Agnes mysteriously disappeared and it prevented the search for her.
Now the plague is over, the village is trying to return to normal life, but it’s hard, with so much to do and so few left to do it. Conflict is growing between the manor and its tenants, as the workers realise their very scarceness means they’re more valuable than before: they can demand higher wages, take on spare land, have a better life. This is the chance theyve all been waiting for!
Although she understands their demands, Alice is disheartened that the search for Agnes is once more put on hold. But when one of the rebels is killed, and then the lord's son is found murdered, it seems the two deaths may be connected, both to each other and to Agness disappearance.


Alice atte Wode, the Millers’ closest neighbour, was feeding her hens when she heard Joan’s first terrible anguished cries. Dropping her basket of seed, she ran to the Millers’ cottage. She wanted to cry out too at what she found there: Thomas and Joan both on their knees, clasped together, with Peter’s twisted body between them, sobbing as if the dam of their long pent-up emotions had burst. Alice breathed deeply to steady her nerves, for she didn’t know how to offer any solace for the Millers’ loss.
Not this time.
It was common enough for parents to lose children. It didn’t mean you ever got used to their loss, or that you loved them any less than if they’d lived. Few lost five children in as many months. But the Millers had. The prosperous family Alice knew only six months ago, with its noisy brood of six happy, healthy children, had been swiftly and brutally slaughtered by the great mortality.
Every family in Meonbridge had lost someone to the plague’s vile grip – a father, a mother, a child – but no other family had lost five.
The great mortality, sent by God, it was said, to punish the world for its sins, had torn the village apart. It had struck at random, at the old and the young, the rich and the poor, the innocent and the guilty. Some of its victims died coughing up blood, some with suppurating boils under their arms or next to their privy parts, some covered in dark, blackish pustules. A few recovered, but most did not and, after two or three days of fear and suffering, died in agony and despair, often alone and unshriven for the lack of a priest, when their loved ones abandoned them. After five months of terror, half of Meonbridge’s people were dead.
When the foul sickness at last moved on, leaving the villagers to pick up the pieces of their shattered lives, Thomas and Joan Miller went to church daily, to pray for their five dead children’s souls, and give thanks to God for sparing Peter. Then the arrival of baby Maud just a few days ago had brought the Millers a bright ray of hope in the long-drawn-out darkness of their despair.
But Peter hadn’t been spared after all.

As I was reading this book I could simply not get my head around the fact that this is Carolyn Hughes first published novel. Its exceptionally well written and is an astoundingly well researched book. I initially found it difficult to get my head around the huge cast of characters but helpfully Carolyn had provided a list of all the important characters at the beginning of the novel and I soon acquainted myself with them all. Although the novel doesn't race along at breakneck speed, it is at a pace that is both comfortable and kept me interested and engaged throughout.

Set in the 14th Century, Meonbridge has been ravished by the Great Plague, or Mortality. With half of its inhabitants meeting a painful demise at the hands of the plague, many find themselves mourning the death of their loved ones, with entire families often being wiped out. Alice atte Wode is one such villager who has lost much. Not only has she lost family members to the plague, but the mysterious disappearance of her daughter Agnes has left her in her own personal purgatory, unable to mourn for her daughter, unsure whether she is in fact also dead. Agnes is sure that those at the Manor know more about the strange disappearance of her daughter than they are admitting to. But, how does someone like Alice and indeed her son John, now under the employ of Sir Richard question the master and his family?

With life starting to return to semi normality after the plague has stripped families of loved ones, there is much unrest between the villagers and the Lord of the Manor. The workers want a fair days pay for a days work and time to tend to their own land. However, Sir Richard refuses to listen to the pleas of his people and the counsel of his wife and the villagers and labourers threaten to revolt, which will leave the harvest to rot and not enough food for anyone unless matters can be resolved.  And, all through this, Alice is trying to find the answers she seeks. She is supported in her quest by her son and her friend Eleanor, who was my favourite character!

There are lots of great little sub-plots woven into the story and the reader is given the opportunity to find out a little bit more of the back stories of the other characters in the book. Each told a story of love, loss, insurmountable grief and bravery. It also told a tale of what life was like during this particular period and plague or no plague life was pretty damn hard, with workers afforded little rights to the lands they worked and many living in poverty.

The main vein throughout the book was the incredible strength of the female characters which is ironic given that at that time women and their opinions and wishes were not considered by their male counterparts. As well as a really entertaining read, the book provided me with invaluable insight into this period in history. Of course there were items and other things in the book that I did have to go and look up the meaning of but that was ok. It just gave the story more credibility and screamed out that Carolyn Hughes very obviously had done her research. This was a book that I really enjoyed and for those lovers of historical fiction I'd recommend you grab yourself a copy and get lost in an altogether different time.

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Carolyn Hughes was born in London, but has lived most of her life in Hampshire. After a first degree in Classics and English, she started her working life as a computer programmer, in those days a very new profession. It was fun for a few years, but she left to become a school careers officer in Dorset. But it was when she discovered technical authoring that she knew she had found her vocation. She spent the next few decades writing and editing all sorts of material, some fascinating, some dull, for a wide variety of clients, including an international hotel group, medical instrument manufacturers and the Government. She has written creatively for most of her adult life, but it was not until her children grew up and flew the nest, several years ago, that creative writing and, especially, writing historical fiction, took centre stage in her life. She has a Masters in Creative Writing from Portsmouth University and a PhD from the University of Southampton.

Fortunes Wheel is her first published novel, and a sequel is under way.

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