*I received a free ARC of this book, with thanks to the author, Sapere Books and NetGalley. The decision to review and my opinions are my own.*
Blurb: Not every corpse put in a pit has died of the plague…
The Black Death is tearing through the country and those not yet afflicted are living in fear.
Martin Collyer wakes up in his family’s charcoaling hut in the Forest of Dean to find his father dead on the bed beside him, half-sewn into his shroud. As Martin’s most recent memory is of being given the last rites, he cannot account for why he is alive and why his father – whose body bears not a trace of the plague – is dead.
With no home to go to and set free from the life of virtual servitude that his father had planned for him, Martin sets off on a journey across England to seek salvation for his father’s unconfessed soul.
He befriends another traveller on the way. But the man – Hob Cleve – seems to be harbouring dark secrets of his own.
As more suspicious deaths occur, Martin is left wondering whether Hob can be trusted.
What is Hob hiding? Is Martin travelling with a killer?
And what really led to Martin’s miraculous recovery?
THE BLACK AND THE WHITE is a chilling historical mystery set during the Medieval plague era.
It took me a little while to fall into the rhythm of Martin’s narrative in this story.
We start with the shock opening of Martin’s apparent recovery from death and his father’s submission to it, but then begin a very slow procession with Martin as he sets off on a pilgrimage to take his father’s saint – Saint Cynryth – to her northern shrine to beg for his father’s safe passage to heaven.
The factual details of the story are fascinating, as the author has clearly thoroughly researched the period and effects of the Black Death plague in England, and the work of a charcoal burner. Similarly, the intricacies of faith and rituals of the time are faithfully represented and we see the opposing attitudes most starkly outlined by Martin and Hob: the one devout, if plagued by doubts, and the other bitter and cynical. These aspects provide a strong and realistic frame for the plot of the story.
Sly Hob and naive Martin’s pairing as travel-buddies reminded me very much of Oliver and The Artful Dodger. Time and again we see Martin question his companion’s trustworthiness, only to find Hob has a plausible explanation and is saddened by the suspicions of his good friend. Then, when poor Martin is sent further trials of his faith, we discover that he cannot even trust himself, as his senses and memory may be playing him false. This constant atmosphere of mounting fear and suspicion begins to slowly drive Martin insane as he attempts to cleave to his goal, and he takes the reader with him into his spiral downwards.
There are quite a few questions and mysteries here. How did Martin recover when his father died? Has the plague mutated, or is there another cause of death following the young men from town to town? Is Saint Cynryth a genuine saint, or a peddlar’s con? Is Martin possessed by a demon, or in the company of one? Most of these were answered by the ending, but the overall resolution of the story left me surprised and disappointed, as it didn’t seem to fit with the tone and overall direction of the rest of the narrative.
This is a very slow-paced story of faith and doubt, and the challenges faced by the faithful during times of crisis, which feels very appropriate to our current world situation. The mystery elements are quite sparse and scattered, with lots of painfully trudging travel in between, which made the book seem like a bit of a long trek to a dispiriting conclusion. If I had picked this up as a historical fiction account of plague and faith, I would likely have enjoyed it, but as a historical murder mystery, I felt it didn’t quite fulfil the promises of the blurb and cover.
Coughing wakes me again. The pain of it is like a blade, its edges chipped and jagged, cleaving my chest, tearing up through my gullet. And the very sound — the hack of it — takes me home. Back to our house in Lysington, back to my sweat-soaked bed and my father’s hand holding a cup of water. The memory rips a greater pain through me, the pain of pestilence, deaths, burials.
My father’s hand held the cup because my mother is dead. They are all dead. My family. All dead.
A cold terror raises the flesh on my scalp. I was dead, too.
– Alis Hawkins, The Black and the White
The Black and the White is available on Amazon right now!