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Son of the Morning

Son of the Morning - Mark Alder This book was a disappointment. I started to read the story in earnest, because I was thrilled at the idea of fantasy set in one of my favorite historical periods, the IV century. From the blurb I expected a solid, complex plot, plenty of intrigue, captivating characters, bloody battles, charming worldbuilding and evocative descriptions. I am familiar with several aspects and characters of the Hundred Years’ War so I was excited at the prospect of Heaven, Hell and all its denizens meshing with the political and military strife of such a well-known background.
The story is indeed complex and it features a sizable cast of characters, there are different plotlines with a convergence trend and the prologue is very intriguing (sadly also the last you see of setting development). Maybe I was expecting too much, but the book fell short on several fronts.

The main flaw is that it is a plot-heavy book with flat characters.

The antagonists are duly evil and the protagonists seriously ambiguous, only two of them are vaguely decent persons. Very fine, I can come to care for unsympathetic scoundrels and I’m always eager to read about labyrinthine personalities and grey moralities, to search for hidden motives behind the obvious and guess at the redeeming potentials. Sadly I didn’t have to dig at all because there was little or none character growth. Most of them felt like they were following a set script in order to shoehorn the plot into preordained situations, often turning out shallow and inconsistent; there are children who act as adults, clever people who remain flinty in their courses of action when anyone else would start to reconsider and hard guys who have too sudden changes of heart. As a result, I failed to connect with any of the characters and none truly fascinated me either, which is also a drawback.

If nothing else I wished I could despise some of them, but how can you find rebarbative villains so foolishly evil or protagonists so obsessively monothematic?

Another consequence of this lack of roundness is that all the characters have to often explain how they feel and their actions to involve the reader (unfortunately in a very repetitive manner: Montagu mooning over Isabella for the nth time and illustrating yet again the motivations of his dilemma, or Edward imparting the same lesson in war finances, the divine right of kings and how harrowing his choices are, again and again…). The elucidations supplied for some of the most brow-raising behaviors simply reinforced my difficulty to feel emotionally engaged. Conversely, there is no overabundance of details as to how their intuitions come about, or about the mystique of the otherwordly or the unfolding agendas of the many factions involved.

One-dimensional characters are a killjoy in tale with serious themes, but I can accept plot over characterization if there is a captivating story and a very structured design. Undoubtedly this book has many interesting ideas and subplots, there are battles and skirmishes, mysteries, opposed interests, a touch of Sleeping Beauty (complete with briar roses), danbrownesque conspiracies, different POVs, intricate quests, the kings’ sport and a lot of upheaval in Heaven’s and Hell’s hierarchies.

Unfortunately, this richness of themes and the complexity itself backfires.

Before long the various characters' paths cross in different, intricate ways, and several scenes are entirely too convoluted, some exchanges so oblique to result artificial, not piquant. That's fine occasionally, I personally don't like it much when characters engage in awkward dialogues just for the reader’s sake or overexplain, but too much vagueness doesn’t deepen the atmosphere of mystery when no firm worldbuilding and no notable characterization sustain the action; the more complexity, the subtler the handling needed.

I think this is the second main weakness of the book: when the narrative swings from too little information to redundancies and back again, the understanding is fragmented and the likely outcome is not thrilling tension, but deep confusion. Also my suspension of disbelief was sorely tested, not for the world depicted, but because several things that happen to further the plot are too convenient to be acceptable. Basically, the unpredictability is contrived; the tale suffers from too many jarring plot devices introduced to prevent the many storylines and layered intrigues from getting out of hand.
As would be expected I rarely felt the story moving with ease and grace. I won’t dwell on all the finer points, but the overall upshot was that my reading pace was slower and I got easily distracted, with a mounting sense of pointlessness.

The book has its moments, surely, and a few exciting twists. I liked the prose, definitely its best feature: the action spans from England to France to Italy and the descriptions are vivid, particularly those of the churches and the riches the angels require for residences up their standard of beauty. There is a nice amount of dark humor, particularly when the comic-relief character (Osbert) starts to adapt to his new circumstances, and I really loved that, he’s dully self-serving and changes innerly not a whit throughout the entire ordeal, in a nutshell he is the most pragmatic of the lot, and probably the only one who doesn’t care about antichrists, eternal souls, internecine conflicts and parricides. Particularly around two-thirds of the book, when the plot is in full hyperbole, there are some hilarious exchanges which added a fitting levity to the cascade of events.

Pace and rhythm were fine and the slow beginning to fast denouement scheme is truly appropriate considering the large scope of the story. However, when as a reader I don’t trust the author to properly deliver anymore, all I can focus on are the shortcomings and I probably fail to appreciate any wrap-up. Not that there was a substantial shift of gears anywhere in the book but again, among flat characters, unbalanced information, arbitrary author decisions and a meandering plot at some point I stopped trying to make head or tail of what was happening. I don’t think even in parodies you can just conjure surprises out of nowhere, there must needs be some in-story consistency and constraint.

And the climax? No payoff, just a frustrating open ending.

I can’t shake this feeling of disharmony and unrealised potential. Son of the Morning is an ambitious work, there are all the makings of a compelling story but the result is too sprawly and I was underwhelmed by the performance. It did not make me run for the hills - I had to force myself to reach the end but I wanted to because the tale somehow pulled me - I am just extremely disappointed that reading this book has not been enjoyable at all.

"Strive for the best outcome, prepare for the worst."