Mark McKerracher

Fantasy fiction

Review: The Evening and the Morning

The Evening and the Morning, by Ken Follett.

If you’ve read my review of Botolph, you’ll know that novels about Anglo-Saxon England pique my interest because I’ve researched and published on the archaeology of the period. So I was excited to see that the famous, best-selling author Ken Follett had taken this theme for his latest book.

It’s part of his Kingsbridge series, which began in 1989 with The Pillars of the Earth, a novel about the building of a medieval cathedral in a fictitious English town. The Evening and the Morning is the prequel inasmuch as it’s set in an earlier period, but they’re independent stories. I haven’t read The Pillars of the Earth and it didn’t stop me from reading The Evening and the Morning.

Friends who have read The Pillars of the Earth tell me it’s very good – it helped to make Follett’s name, after all – so I had high hopes for this Anglo-Saxon instalment. It’s an 815-page epic tale, with different families’ stories gradually intertwining, in a wider context of warfare, political tumult, and corruption, around the turn of the second millennium (i.e. circa AD 1000). The start is rather slow – necessarily, at times, because there’s a large cast of characters to introduce, and a historic scene to set which most readers won’t be well-versed in.

So, since I am familiar with the period, let’s get some historical gripes out of the way. First, the Sutton Hoo helmet is used on the front cover and as a recurring motif inside (at least in my copy of the book). I can see why they used this image: it screams Anglo-Saxon. But the book is set around AD 1000, and the helmet dates from nearer AD 600. So it’s 400 years too old – like putting Henry VIII on a book about Winston Churchill. I guess the publisher thought that nobody would notice (or care), and they’re probably mostly right. But still.

Then there’s a brief prologue telling us that “When the Roman Empire declined, Britain went backwards… progress was painfully slow for five hundred years.” Groan. No, Britain did not “go backwards” (whatever that means) and “progress” (whatever that means) was not “painfully slow” for a full half-millennium. Historians and archaeologists mostly dispensed with that one-sided caricature decades ago. Sutton Hoo, for a start, reflects economic and technological sophistication, and cultural richness, in the early seventh century.

The prologue ends with the promise that “at last, things started to change…”. And it seems, according to The Evening and the Morning, that this change was largely due to a young boatwright named Edgar. He’s the male lead, virtuous and likeable on the whole, but almost supernaturally gifted with his hands. Having learned boat-building skills from his dad, Edgar later miraculously works out stonemasonry and bridge-construction (among other things) from first principles. Really? Can that be done? Still, he’s a good guy, and I wished him well.

Elsewhere the cast includes thoroughly despicable villains – petty bigwigs and scheming clerics – a bluff and generally dislikeable warlord, and (of course) a feisty young heroine called Ragna. Their collective adventures, misadventures and relationships are well-written enough that by the end I genuinely loathed the villains and was cheering on the heroes, and some characters remained realistically morally grey.

I have some quibbles with the writing, though – some disappointments, really, given how well-established and experienced the author is. One is the rather ham-fisted insertion of historical research. For instance, when amiable monk Aldred explains serfdom to a French priest, he sounds a bit too much like a textbook: “your peasants are serfs, who need the permission of their lord to marry, change their way of making a living, or move to another village. By contrast, English peasants are free.”

Then there are the sex scenes, which tend towards the eye-rolling and/or seedy (and occasionally worse). I find raunchy passages gratuitous at the best of times, and these weren’t the best of times. I won’t quote anything but, honestly, I wonder if Ken outsourced these bits to a randy teenager.

And yet, for all that, I kept reading to the end. Once the pace picked up, I started to care about the lead characters, and the twists, turns, trials and tribulations became very compelling. Everything rolled together to a dramatic and satisfying conclusion.

So, this story was well crafted on the whole, but sometimes slow, and occasionally frustrating/embarrassing. The ‘period feel’ was a bit hit-and-miss, but I like that Follett has tackled the Anglo-Saxon period at all. I’m now tempted to read Pillars of the Earth, which I hear is a much better written book. My rating overall: 3 stars

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