Son of the Morning is sacrilegious. Like really sacrilegious. The first clue should probably be the description, or the title if you’re really savvy. This is not necessarily a bad thing. But unfortunately Son of the Morning is held down by other issues.
Son of the Morning is a historical fantasy set against the backdrop of the Hundred Years War. The titular Son of the Morning is Lucifer, who, sadly, is Sir Not Appearing in this Book. But we get about everything else. Not only is there God and largely biblical angels (which, should be noted, are much cooler and ring-of-fire-y than Touched By An Angel angels), but there are devils and demons. The taxonomy is important. Devils are Hell’s gaolers (or jailers, if you’re down with the modern obsession with spelling). Which means they’re like angels, but it turns out Heaven has quite a hierarchy. Devils are doing God’s work, but they’re peons, and medieval God cares quite a bit about that sort of thing. Demons, on the other hand, are traditional fallen angels.
Well, not exactly traditional. This is where Son of the Morning gets really sacrilegious, and interesting. Because, at least according to the arguments of the Luciferians, who claim God is the usurper and Lucifer the true, uh, god. Oh, and he was Christ too. This is the point at which Christian heads would explode, if we weren’t inured by a few decades of popular culture abuse. Unlike most of that, it is actually interesting, not ahistorical, and theologically challenging. Notably for the setting, it fits. Christ does mark a departure from the Old Testament and Crazy Old Testament God (I’m down with Crazy Old Testament God, so it’s cool). And the Church and theology of medieval Europe is a far cry from modern theology (even modern Catholic theology).
That’s where Alder cleverly fits his worldbuilding in with history. That’s a basic problem with historical fantasy. If magic is real, or gods walk among is, then why isn’t history dramatically different? Alder’s solution is to give us worldbuilding that fits medieval theology, and a story that suggests the worldbuilding will change in keeping with the huge social, cultural, and theological changes that marked the end of the Middle Ages. The divine right of kings is real, backed by angels and of enormous consequence. The massive spending by guilty nobles is rational in a world where angels mainly value pretty light.
There is the very interesting setup. It’s theologically and sociologically interesting. Unfortunately, where that is translated into story is where things trip up. Alder doesn’t help himself by being ridiculously ambitious with the narrative. There are loads and loads of characters and multiple POVs right from the start. Characters range from Montague the lord and marshal to Osbert the pardoner to Orsino the mercenary to Dowzabel the Cornish peasant (and Luciferian, and possible Antichrist). None are poorly done, but none are really interesting except perhaps for Montague, who manages to be likeable despite being all in on the whole divine right of nobles thing. The plot—not only the Hundred Years War but a thousand machinations around it, including those around a king who is emphatically supposed to be dead—is interesting enough.
Somehow this all falls down in execution. The culprit, I think, is the decision to be so aggressive with the plot threads and POVs and the worldbuilding. Most of the book I was confused about the distinction between devils and demons and who was who. The plot seemed to move forward at a glacial pace; a nigh unavoidable problem, I think, of multiple POVs right from the get-go. That really kills it. I went on above at length about the stuff I thought was cool. Sacrilegious, yes, but sacrilegious stuff is the most theologically interesting, because it requires you to muster your own theological priors, culling the weak and promoting the strong, in order to mentally vanquish it. But this was a book that I more than once considering putting down and not finishing. For a born finisher like me, that’s a damning indictment.
3.5 of 5 Stars.
Disclosure: I received a free, advance copy of Son of the Morning through NetGalley.