18 July 2016

Son of the Morning

A review of Son of the Morning by Mark Alder (Gollancz, 2014) – originally published in Interzone

My initial reaction when this arrived in the post was trepidation: This is a very big book by an unknown author. In my experience, fantasies that can double as doorstops and/or sprawl over multiple volumes often sacrifice quality on the altar of quantity. On the other hand, the book has been enthusiastically endorsed by Robert Adams who is not known for his tolerance of bad writing.

Son of the Morning is a historical fantasy set at the beginning of the Hundred Years War. Alder has set himself the challenging task of telling ‘an accurate historical epic’ and superimposing upon it a mythology in which he reworks medieval Christian cosmology. In his take on the Hundred Years War, heaven and hell have entered the fray. France is defended not only by a large human army but also by several angels. Edward III is determined not to bow to Philip VI but he is reluctant to engage in direct conflict because the English angels have been notable by their absence since his father’s death. However, a possible alliance with the devils could tip the balance in England’s favour.

This is where Alder’s reworking of Christian theology becomes particularly interesting. He makes a distinction between devils and demons. The latter are powerful spiritual beings who have been supplanted by God. This divine usurper has imprisoned his rivals in hell, and the devils are God’s gaolers. With the demons safely out of the way, God has been able to exercise an iron rule over earth through the agency of his other servants, the angels.

However, the demons are fighting back. Led by Lucifer (who in this mythology is equated with Christ), they have carved out a free enclave within hell. Now they are seeking to regain a foothold on earth. For some time they have had human supporters but now their agent, Antichrist, has been born. The son of a human king and a fallen angel, he has the potential to transform this human conflict into a cosmic confrontation.

The publishers would have us compare this with the works of Bernard Cornwell and George Martin. Perhaps so, but for me, the obvious comparisons were Sarah Douglass’s Crucible trilogy, which operates from the remarkably similar premise of angels and demons interfering in the Hundred Years War (though she begins her series much later in the reign of Edward III), and Maurice Druon’s series Les Rois Maudits, which is a remarkable dramatization of events in France preceding the Hundred Years War (some of which are alluded to by characters in Son of the Morning).

Alder’s characterization is very impressive. The dramatis personae are all lovingly crafted individuals with their own distinctive voices. Not surprisingly, the dialogue is utterly convincing. As a result of this care, I found myself sympathizing with each character in turn, even with some who might simply be presented as one-dimensional villains in a less nuanced novel. This also has the effect of turning the novel into a complex network of stories interweaving into each other as we follow each of the main characters in turn.

Equally compelling is the descriptive dimension of the novel. He brings the period to life in a way that is rarely the case with historical fantasy. If anything, his handling of the supernatural elements of the story is even more striking. I particularly liked his approach to the angels, which are portrayed as surreal, otherworldly, but recognizably humanoid beings. As for his devils, they come straight out of Hieronymus Bosch’s Garden of Earthly Delights.

In summary, the quality of writing is remarkably (even suspiciously) assured for an unknown novelist. The reason for this became apparent as I was browsing the publishers’ website some time after finishing the novel. It appears that Mark Alder is a new pseudonym rather than a new writer. This is, in fact the work of M.D. Lachlan (aka Mark Barrowcliffe) of Wolfsangel fame (which I reviewed enthusiastically four years ago).

I must confess I am less enthusiastic about Son of the Morning than I was about Wolfsangel. Yes, the writing is excellent but I’m not convinced the storyline can bear its weight. As I worked my way through the latter half of the novel I became increasingly ambivalent: I wanted to luxuriate in the characterization and description but I became increasingly impatient to get to the end. This problem was compounded by the sheer expansiveness of the storyline: its takes place over the best part of a decade; it is composed as already mentioned of multiple storylines woven together to tell the larger story; and the parts don’t always hang together as well as they might.

I was left feeling that somehow the whole seemed less than the sum of the parts. Nevertheless, the whole is still a remarkably good read and a promising start to a new fantasy series. I look forward to the next volume.

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