The fear of God and damnation fuelled medieval life. Its fire was fed by the estates of Church and King, the poor predated on by both. But while kings might call on angels for support against the holy forces of their enemy, and while rich and poor alike might entreat saints (or indulgences) to intercede in the daily struggle of a hard life and its inevitable end, it might not hurt to hedge one’s bets – to pester demons and devils for their support. If God won’t listen, maybe Lucifer will. In these times, angels, demons and devils were not fantasy, they were a part of the shadows and lights that watched the daily lives and thoughts of every soul.
It is into this medieval world that we are immersed in Son of the Morning – we are dipped into a century where the statues of saints chatter in churches while capricious angels play in the coloured light of Europe’s most royal chapels. Where demons and devils wait for the gates of hell to open just enough, and where the richest in the land consort with monsters. And where the poor are trodden into the mud of the battlefield or discarded in the sewage on the streets. But what if there are demons that will listen just to them? What if a saviour should emerge – not from heaven but a son of Lucifer?
Son of the Morning takes place in the few years leading up to and including one of the key events of the entire medieval period – the Battle of Crecy in 1346. But it wasn’t just knights and longbowmen who fought alongside the Kings and princes of England and France that day, and in all the other days of the Hundred Years War. The skies were black with imps, the ships were blown by angel breath, knights were enthused and torn apart by dragon banners and demons inflamed the poor to rise up and take land and life from their overlords.
Angels will only talk to kings but none will talk to Edward III. His finances have been emptied by war and he looks for a solution to both problems in the service of his best friend and knight William Montagu, the Earl of Salisbury. Montagu is an honourable man, in aristocratic terms, until he falls from grace in a manner to rival that of God’s fallen angels. His mission, to discover the true fate of the King’s father, the unlucky Edward II, adapts as he realises the extent of his damnation.
But this is not medieval theology as we would recognise it. God and Lucifer are not in their familiar forms. The only thing that God created was the hell to imprison his rival, Lucifer. God keeps the devotion of humankind with rules. In the Harrowing of Hell, Christ found just two souls sufficiently free of sin to rescue. One side effect of God’s law is the division of society with the nobility secure in its superiority over the poor and those who trade. When the Queen of Navarre finds her son Charles consorting with cats all that bothers her is that they should be aristocratic Persian cats. If he eats mice, they must be beautiful white mice, caged within a jewel box. Morality has been corrupted by snobbery. Montagu has the best lines when it comes to stating his self-importance but as time continues he changes and by the end of the novel it’s doubtful that he would recognise or acknowledge himself.
Son of Morning overflows with rich characters. There are far too many to mention and are best discovered for yourself but some are outstanding, especially Osbert the pardoner – there is nothing he wouldn’t say or sell to save his skin – and the demon cardinal who has his own use for human skin. I think my favourite though, apart from Montagu, is Charles of Navarre, truly a monstrous child in every sense of the word, yet with charisma overflowing.
The novel is a long one at well over 700 pages and it’s not a book to read quickly. There is a huge amount going on and many characters to follow, many missions to pursue. It immerses the reader absolutely in this medieval world. Reading it is an absorbing experience. It interprets the psychology and sentiment of the age and brings it alive on the page. It is bawdy and it is very funny in places. At others, it is tragic. Angels might be capricious and vainglorious but the death of an angel is a terrible thing. The suffering of the poor, the corruption of the church, the cruelty of kings and princes, the small pleasures that were to be found, and the certainty that humans are no more significant than the little imps who nestle against their masters for comfort, all remind us that the Hundred Years War was a battle for much more than the soil of France or England.
Son of the Morning, written beautifully and powerfully and fantastically from the very first page, finishes perfectly, ending the story for some and hinting at a host of new characters – human, divine and unholy – to come. This is the first in a trilogy. The next cannot come quickly enough, especially with the hints of what lies ins store, including that most diabolic of pestilences, the Black Death. Without doubt, this is one of the most imaginative and vivid novels I have read in years and I will remember for a long time the pleasure it has given me.