Hundred Years’ War Retold as Heretical Fantasy
Faith is a curious thing. It inspires devotion and obedience. It grants licence to the good and bad alike. If anything, our history has been shaped by it, pulled this way and that by those with faith in God and those with faith in themselves. Rarely was this more apparent than during Edward III of England’s campaigns against Philip VI of France throughout the 1330s and 1340s, the initial phase of the Hundred Years’ War and the subject of this utterly enjoyable historical fantasy.
Mark Alder’s conceit here is to play straight with the faith of the day. Yes, says Son of the Morning, God appoints kings and, yes, angels will fly to the aid of knights in battle. Thus a surprising meditation on the personal and political implications of faith is concealed within a story of grim royals and sword-swinging men-at-arms. This is, after all, an era in which minor lords owe homage to kings who in turn must bend the knee to an even mightier monarch by deferring to the authority of God.
Yet the novel’s Supreme Being is not the one you will recognise from mass. Instead, Son of the Morning uses the dynastic dispute of the Hundred Years’ War as its model for a more mystical conflict: God is a rebellious angel who drinks the blood of his martyrs and “put some men above others”. He usurped Heaven from the real creator, Lucifer, the titular “Son of the Morning” and a being who “made himself”. Those who believe this follow a “religion of revolution” which professes that Satan “is God’s servant – a gaoler charged with keeping Lucifer locked away”.
Confused? Don’t be. Alder carefully lays out his theology at the outset and adds to it only slowly as the novel progresses. The reader quickly learns the difference between a demon – a “downthrown angel” – and a devil – a warden of the prison which is Hell. Angels, for their part, serve as a kind of medieval nuclear deterrent. The imagery Alder employs evokes as much: swaddled in “foils of light”, each angel wields awesome destructive powers on behalf of its anointed ruler. The effect is to cast religion as an arms race rather than an alms race.
Thus a French army backed by angels and flying the magical banner of the Oriflamme is undefeatable, a clear and present danger to the English claim on Philip’s throne. Edward has faith of his own, of course, but it is in himself and nearer to vanity. “England is me and I am England,” declares this man “famous for his rage”. He is a skilful warrior yet he seems to have been deserted by God; is it possible that his father still lives? If so, that makes Edward an unwitting usurper and perhaps explains why the angels will not come to him. Worse, it makes him “a neutered king, the victim of any rightful monarch who could call angels to the field”.
Not that King Philip is without difficulties of his own. Alder presents his French angels as “very exact in their criticism, while remaining entirely impenetrable when you asked them for anything useful”. Unreliable allies, in other words. They demand chapels of gold in which to dwell and the mass sacrifice of French troops before they will act. They speak in riddles and, in the end, they want “what God always wants of the faithful”: blood. Though certainly there is enough of that to go around in Son of the Morning’s seven hundred pages.
Inspired by history, the novel’s rich cast includes not just Edward and Philip, but the wry and battle-hardened William Montagu, Edward’s councillor and special investigator; Osbert, a pardoner and a charlatan; the boy Dow, who may be the antichrist, his tongue forked by a priest as punishment; along with Isabella of France, Edward’s mother and an enchantress of great beauty and power imprisoned in a tower at her son’s behest. Behind them all move the inscrutable Knights Hospitaller, an order who “absorbed the Templars on their dissolution” and in the process claimed great profit from the latter’s lands.
Alder who, as MD Lachlan, cut his historical fiction teeth on the Viking era in his Wolfsangel series, offers the reader immersive evocations of fourteenth century Paris and London. His cities brim with detail from the “gilded columns” of the palaces to the “dilapidated maze of houses” and “numberless poor” of the streets. As a former journalists he also possesses a keen eye for court intrigue sure to appeal to many readers. His noble houses vie for dominance, building and breaking alliances of both a political and supernatural nature while their fleets and armies engage in pitched naval engagements and the “grinding, miserable affair” of the war in France.
Buried beneath the narrative are hints at a gradual transition from lords and vassals to more professional bodies of troops and tactics. It is lightly done, but Alder’s impeccable research shines through in his commentary on the social contract of feudalistic Europe. Again and again the author asks “do servants always want what their masters want?” The answer, as you might imagine, is almost always no, but watching Alder play out the consequences is not just fascinating but genuinely engrossing.
A great doorstop of a book, Son of the Morning is one part George RR Martin and one part Dan Brown, although Alder’s prose is far better than both. So too is his sharp sense of humour. Montague and Osbert are cases in point, continually undercutting their respective macho and pathetic personas with pithy sarcasm. Indeed, while all Alder’s characters flirt with fantasy stereotypes to some extent, they largely eschew these in favour of three-dimensionality. Only Dow, the boy with a destiny, comes close to real cliché, but even he, with his considerable agency and his demonic beliefs, achieves credible growth by the end.
It all combines to make Son of the Morning a rollicking read awash with shocks, laughs, big ideas, and some very fine writing. True the story is guided by history, but it is Alder’s imaginative flourishes which light the way throughout. The result is an ambitious novel which more than justifies the faith which the reader places in its author at the outset.
Other posts which may be of interest:
- ‘Love letter to New York that explores a sense of personal violation at 9/11’: My Irish Examiner Review of Thomas Pynchon’s Bleeding Edge.
- ‘But for the tune I did it’; Bagpiping novel strikes Modernist note; my review of Kirsty Gunn’s The Big Music.