I first discovered the fantasy genre when I picked up Lord of the Rings in the school library. I was twelve years old, and trying my best to avoid the bullies who’d been the bane of my existence since I was ten. The library was my favourite hiding place: they could find me in there, but they wouldn’t be able to cause trouble because of the inviolate rule of silence while in the library, and there was always a librarian there who could report them to the teachers if they did anything. Of course, there were other places I could have hidden (near the convent was a good spot; the school I attended was run by nuns, and it was a well-enforced silent rule that one did not cause trouble near their convent, lest Mother Superior hear about it and make things especially difficult for the troublemaker), but the library had books, and books were always a good thing.
At any rate, reading Lord of the Rings has pretty much informed the things I look for before I can consider any work “good”, whatever its genre might be. One of the big things is world-building: Lord of the Rings is famous and influential for its world-building, and the richness and depth of Middle-Earth is both a goal to be reached and an example to aspire to for many fantasy and sci-fi writers. I feel the same way as well, though that appreciation has been tweaked over the years: while I appreciate a writer who can create a world with the same depth and breadth as Tolkien’s, what matters more is that the world is solid enough for it to provide both foundation and backdrop for everything else in the novel. Every writer has their own way of going about that; it’s not necessary for them to go to the lengths Tolkien did (though I can appreciate that kind of dedication).
Of course, other things matter slightly more than world-building: great characters, for example, can make up for a world that’s mostly sketched-in, especially when paired with a great plot and exquisite themes. But when the characters are bland, the plot so-so and the themes nothing really new, then world-building has a greater influence on whether or not I think a book is at least readable. And when a book doesn’t even have that, then it can make for a very frustrating read indeed.
This is the case with Mark Alder’s Son of the Morning, the first book in his Banners of Blood series. Set at the beginning of the Hundred Years’ War, King Edward III of England and King Philip VI of France war against each other in an attempt to gain control of the throne of France. None of this is new to anyone who is familiar with this particular part of history, or has easy access to Wikipedia. Alder’s take on it, however, is different. In his version of history, both sides have access to supernatural forces: angels, who are housed in the glorious cathedrals built during this period, can fight for any given side—if they can be convinced to do so. And if there are angels, it stands to reason that there are also more unholy entities with which one can make alliances, if one is willing to pay the price. And it is a price Edward may be willing to pay, no matter the cost.
Now, on the surface, this book is something I should find appealing—and in fact, based on the official blurb alone, I was thoroughly excited to read it. I enjoy alternate history a great deal, especially any sort of alternate history set before the Industrial Revolution, and because Alder chose to set his novel during the Hundred Years’ War, that just made the idea of reading Son of the Morning even better. But what really sweetened the deal was the whole idea of angels going to war against each other for the sake of two different countries. I imagined that Alder would have built a fantastic scaffolding for that concept, not least because the idea itself would mean tweaking previous history before the start of the Hundred Years’ War in order to make sure it accommodates the concept of kings being able to summon the forces of heaven or hell for their own benefit.
However, that’s not what happens in Son of the Morning. Instead of a firm stage on which the characters may grow and the plot may unfold, the world-building feels like nothing more than a sheet draped over the scaffolding of history. Indeed, I’ve built sturdier blanket forts than the world-building done for this novel, and that’s saying something, as most of the blanket forts I’ve built in my childhood were very flimsy constructions indeed.
It surprises me, therefore, to see comparisons being drawn between this novel and George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series. I feel the comparison is justified only insofar as Martin based the political machinations and some of his characters upon the events and certain personages who participated in some of the more pivotal events of the Hundred Years’ War—Martin himself has stated in interviews that he drew a lot of inspiration from that period of history in the writing of his series. However, unlike Son of the Morning, Martin’s vision of Westeros is rich and robust: it has a deep history, one that lies underneath the conflict depicted in the novels’ present, and which influences characters and plot movement alike. To be sure, Martin doesn’t give his readers the whole picture, and leaves much for them to infer on their own, but at the very least one gets a sense of a world that is not only alive, but has a history all its own.
The same absolutely cannot be said of Son of the Morning. The only explanation the reader gets about how this whole system of angels, devils, and demons work—and yes, the latter two are very different from each other—is the prologue, which explains the book’s cosmology, after which the reader is left on their own to understand how the world works.
Now, I am the very last person to complain about being made to sink or swim by a writer: in fact, I appreciate a writer who’s confident enough to do that to their readers, to trust in their readers’ intelligence to figure things out on their own. However, I’ve noted that most writers who excel at doing that kind of thing are also the writers who are very good at building their world around and through their characters, for instance, or using the plot effectively, or working around grand overarching themes.
Alder doesn’t manage to do any of that at all. The events leading up to the Hundred Years’ War are rich in potential scaffolding, to say nothing of the history and mythology surrounding the medieval understanding of heaven and hell and their respective hierarchies and entities, but he doesn’t appear to take advantage of any of that at all. For example, I kept wondering: what of the Jews, what of the Muslims? They too had a long history of angelic and demonic magic; where are they in all of this? If Alder was drawing upon medieval angelology and demonology to shape his world-building, why does he not draw upon Jewish and Islamic sources, which formed the core of Christian angelology and demonology in the first place? Why no Muslim sorcerers? Why no Jewish Qabalistic masters?
I understand that the Hundred Years’ War was a European conflict, but when one is playing around with religious mythology, particularly Abrahamic religious mythology, then it stands to reason that one cannot simply focus on Europe alone; one must also address Judaism and Islam and understand how they fit into the picture—not least because there were Jewish populations in every major European city at the time, and the Muslims were still a power to be reckoned with from their home base in Spain. Addressing that would be just one way of building a stronger foundation for the world-building of this novel, for getting the reader to understand and, more importantly, accept that it all really can work.
Sadly, that is not what the reader gets. The legend in the prologue is, suspiciously, presented as an exclusively Christian legend, one that bears no references to the Islamic or even Jewish traditions. Such a legend—especially since it concerns a God and a religious hierarchy shared by three major world religions—cannot have come into existence as an exclusively Christian legend in a world where Islam and Judaism both exist as well (Judaism’s existence is implied by the fact that Christianity exists; Islam’s existence is implied by a brief mention of a minor character fighting Moors in Spain). Alder had a chance to truly give the legend, and consequently his world, a certain amount of depth, but he doesn’t take that chance at all. The reader is told to accept that it is there, and that it works, instead of being shown that it works through the characters and the plot.
Perhaps because of the sheer weakness of the world-building, the characters aren’t interesting, either. Alder deals with some of the most notable personages of the period, but they don’t strike one as being very vivid. For that matter, the original characters don’t strike one as being very interesting, either. There is something of the caricature about all of them, which is deplorable at the worst (not least when it comes to writing about the female characters, like Queen Isabella and Joan of Navarre), and irritating at the least. None of them feels organic, or subtle, or really, like an actual thinking, feeling person. In many cases they feel like nothing more than vehicles for delivering aphorisms about class and faith and duty and a whole lot of other themes that I know could and should be tackled in a novel with a concept like what Son of the Morning is built around, but character should do more than just make clever observations about the state of the world around them.
As for the plot, it’s obvious that it’s meant to be epic, but the way it’s been handled is less than stellar. The world-building does nothing for it, nor do the characters, so the whole thing plods along even though I know, in the back of my head, that it has all the capacity of moving forward at a nice, comfortable clip. There are some battles that I suppose are meant to be epic, but most of them feel rather ho-hum save for the battle at the end—but since that’s essentially the Battle of Crecy, one of the most important English victories of the Hundred Years’ War (along with the Battles of Poitiers and Agincourt), I don’t think that counts. Of course, epic battles aren’t an absolute necessity for a good fantasy novel, but when one reads of battle scenes that try so very hard to be epic, and fail at it, then it can be difficult to just let them go without remarking upon them.
The plot also has a terrible tendency to jerk around and jump from one point-of-view character to another. This isn’t all that bad a thing, as many writers do this, but writers who do it well have a very tight grasp of these changes in point-of-view, managing to do so smoothly and without jarring the reader too much. That’s not the case in Son of the Morning, where the narrative shifts feel like being jolted around in the back of a hay cart on a bumpy road, before the invention of suspension springs. That’s partly the reason why it took me so long to finish this novel: I’d reach a certain threshold wherein I’d get tired of being jolted around, and would put it aside in favour of reading something with a smoother narrative.
Overall, Son of the Morning is an irritating, frustrating read, and I sometimes wonder why I spent so much time on it. However, I knew I wouldn’t be able to actually write a proper review about it unless I finished it, which is the same reason why I finished To Your Scattered Bodies Go, even if I disliked that book immensely. I wanted to be able to write intelligently about Son of the Morning, to be able to point out precisely what I so dislike about t, and I couldn’t do that without finishing it. The only thing that prevents me from completely scorning Son of the Morning is what drew me to it in the first place: its concept. It was also the concept that kept me going through the rest of the novel, despite my frustrations, and that, I suppose, is something.
However, it takes more than just an interesting concept to make a book readable, much less good, and sadly, Son of the Morning is very definitely not good.