Friday 25 April 2014

Son of the Morning - Mark Alder

The Hundred Years War spanning the 116 years between 1337 and 1453 is one of those great sprawling medieval conflicts that roams back and forth across Northern Europe encompassing a huge number of iconic battles and names of Medieval history. Crecy, Agincourt, Saint-Omar, Tournai, Poitiers just some of the battles that have been immortalised in English and presumably in French consciousness for almost 700 years. We have icons like Edward the Black Prince, Joan of Arc, John the Blind, Henry V, Charles the Bad just a few of the big names that are what you think of if you think of the period. At the same time Europe suffered a series of peasant revolts and an almost total overthrow of the traditional feudal system largely due to the ravages of the Black Death. There is a massive amount that can be written about the period, so much fodder for authors. Something I've never seen touched upon though is the Hundred Years War taking the medieval stance on the nature of Angels and Devils into account.
Medieval theology is something that to modern eyes seems slightly mental. If you read medieval religious or social texts you will find numerous accounts of people genuinely interacting with a huge array of Saints, Angels, Imps and Demons. Many of these are accounts of ordinary common folk stumbling across a Demon as they go about their daily business, but it's not just gullible peasants who see these things. Serious, sensible and highly educated men and women totally believe that these heavenly and hellish creatures existed and could be appealed to. The creatures were a very real part of the actual world, a fact confirmed by all of the great minds of the day. They were as real to the medieval consciousness as microbes and atoms are to the modern mind.
With Son of the Morning Mark Alder has taken this theological concept of Angels and Demons being all around us and made it literal fact. The Angels and the Saints quite literally dwell amongst the relics that fill the medieval churches. The more beautiful and splendid the church the more powerful the Angel that is likely to choose to live there. The worthy, the pious, those chosen by God can have the types of very real conversations with these beings that you usually only find discussed in the writings of people like Julian of Norwich or Margery Kempe. At the same time demons are able to take physical form and disrupt God's plan on earth in a totally literal manner, just as the most educated medieval mind would have known they could. When a King declares that the Angels are with his army, and when the troops have a vision of a heavenly Host streaming above the battlefield this isn't superstitious nonsense, but probable fact. Now both the French and English Kings are finding their respective saints and angels increasingly unresponsive, and have to work out if this is a sign of God's displeasure or if something 'unholy' needs to be done to break the stalemate.

As if the conceptual leap it took to combine medieval action and politics with the high fantasy of Angelic intervention wasn't enough to make this book brilliant; Alder also draws in elements of Milton's Paradise Lost concerning Lucifer and his fallen angels, turning the whole concept of God and the battle between Heaven and Hell on it's head. In Son of the Morning mankind has been deceived, the accepted concepts surrounding creation, Christ and the hierarchy between Heaven and Hell is based on lies. 'God' created nothing but the barren wastes of Hell. God saw the beauty of Paradise that Lucifer had formed and in his failure and rage imprisoned Lucifer in Hell binding mankind up in a system of rules and sins that demanded worship of him alone. These sins are so wide reaching that only a tiny minority can ever hope to avoid the fires of Hell. At one point a character, confused about why Hell is so overcrowded asks if Christ didn't visit Hell to release all the just souls who had died with no chance of his Grace. The answer 'He did. And he freed both of them.' Only two simply because of the impossibility for mankind to live by the Ten Commandments. Lucifer escaped Hell only once and came to Earth where he was called Christ. That was until God arranged for him to be betrayed, crucified and returned to his prison, only later spreading the rumour that 'Christ' was in fact the Son of God and a sacrifice in God's name. By combining the paradox of mankind's base nature vs the purity demanded by the Bible,  the disparity between the vengeful God of the Old Testament and the message of peace and love of the New Testament and the world full of death, pain and disease the was normal day to day living for medieval people Alder has come up with a solution that draws in all of these threads and which has the potential to be taken so much further in the upcoming instalments in the story.
There are so many places that this can go. The s**tstorm that hits Europe with the outbreaks of unprecedented vileness that was the Black Death, and the total collapse of 'God's order' in the form of the feudal system, I can't wait to see how these are handled. The concept of Lucifer as a saviour of the people spreading his message of equality 'When Adam delved and Eve Span who was then the Gentleman?' that helped unite revolts both in England and in France only to be brutally crushed by Richard II in the case of London and by Charles the Bad, King of Navarre in the Jacquerie of Paris. This all fits beautifully into the world that Alder has created. As does the total and almost unique brutality of the chevanchee used by military commanders during the period, why else would they commit such crimes unless spurred on by unholy forces?
I'm hoping, and guessing, that future books in the series will delve further into the reasons behind the various unfortunate nicknames given to some of the great war leaders. There is so much material that can be drawn into this brilliant story and used to bolster up the concept of demons, devils and angels all at war. Things like the wording of the momento mori on the tomb of the Black Prince, and the horrific but unlikely death of Charles of Navarre as well as the spate of sightings of angels like Michael that helped raise Joan of Arc to prominence. Even the documented interest Isabella of France took in the supernatural during her retirement and her eventual adoption of the habit of the Poor Clares ending with her burial alongside the heart of her husband; all of these factors will hopefully be drawn in to further enrich this incredible fantasy world.

Ok so in case you can't tell, I love this book; I'm blown away by just how cool the concept is, how well it's been drawn together and just why no one has thought to do this before (if they have, I apologise but I've not come across it and would love to be pointed in the right direction). This book isn't just a cool concept though. There are some wonderful descriptive passages both of the minutiae of daily life, the fabrics and textures of people come across daily and of the huge battle scenes. Think Bernard Cornwell style battles raging across the page, being chased by escapees from Dante. In fact one aspect I really should touch on is the vision of Hell and of the Devils and Demons that reside there. The descriptions of angels are pretty cool; lots of bright lights, colours, beauty, trumpets; think Monty Python's Holy Grail on overdrive. The descriptions of hell, however, are something else. Anyone who's ever seen the medieval wall art that survives in some of the little churches that escaped the Reformation's zeal will know that medieval concepts of Hell were brutal and bizarre. Think the men with faces in their chests that reside around the outer edges of the Hereford Mappa Mundi, or the visions of Hell that make up the famous works by Hiernymous Bosch; what you get here is all of those things and then some.... The devils are terrifying and yet often strangely comical as they cavort and rampage across the countryside. Rotten and corrupt they manage to combine everything that is vile. Even down to being petty minded, but violent, bureaucrats who simply don't realise that their boss, God, is a lunatic! They also have some of the brilliantly ridiculous names that are found in the East Anglian Witchfinder records, all called things like Catspaw or KnowMuch this adds to some of the comic ridiculousness of the interaction between serious and stately nobility and the devils found in this novel.

As if this weren't enough Son of the Morning also has a cast of really wonderful characters. Osbert the Pardoner is a particular favourite of mine, with his Blackadderesque view of the world as being quite ready to drop all manner of cr*p on him from a great height and his willingness to manipulate the forces of Earth, Heaven and Hell to make his way through existence as easily as possible. He is given some of the best comic lines as he finds himself in a variety of unpleasant but unlikely situations. His glee at finally getting hold of some actual relics rather than the knock-offs he's been selling all his life is very funny to read, as are his moments of baiting Father Edwin. William Montegu is also a great character, demonstrating the idea of  classic chivalry corrupted, and through him we get to see the whole process of nobility sinking into absolute sin and losing everything.
One minor complaint is that the female characters are a little lacking both in quantity and in substance. With the period setting and the idea of war and politics as a place for men this is at least understandable, although it is a little infuriating that the female characters that are available don't seem to be utilised as much as they maybe could be. The two predominant females, Queens Isabella and Joan don't come across as being particularly unique from one another, although there is scope for them to show their differences a little more in future books. So this is a minor quibble at this stage.

This is a long old book, 779 pages in the edition I read, but please don't be put off (if you've managed to read all the way through this review then you are probably up to the task anyway!) Every page is worth it here, there is a wealth of detail, of language and of thought that needs every single page. As this book only covers the first 16 odd years of the conflict I'm hopeful that there will be many more books to come and can't wait to see how the author resolves some of the mysteries surrounding the great heroes and antiheroes of the period.

1 comment:

  1. Thank you for your enthralling and coruscating review. Will read this book with greater interest now that I have read your detailed and thoroughly entertaining review. Well done.