The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett
I was so excited when I got a notification that NetGalley granted my wish, that it felt like Christmas came in August! Thank you, NetGalley.
The Evening and the Morning is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, an international bestseller first published in 1989, and the blurb reads:
"It is 997 CE, the end of the Dark Ages, and England faces attacks from the Welsh in the west and the Vikings in the east. Life is hard, and those with power wield it harshly, bending justice according to their will – often in conflict with the king. With his grip on the country fragile and with no clear rule of law, chaos and bloodshed reign.
Into this uncertain world three people come to the fore: a young boatbuilder, who dreams of a better future when a devastating Viking raid shatters the life that he and the woman he loves hoped for; a Norman noblewoman, who follows her beloved husband across the sea to a new land only to find her life there shockingly different; and a capable monk at Shiring Abbey, who dreams of transforming his humble abbey into a centre of learning admired throughout Europe.
Now, with England at the dawn of the Middle Ages, these three people will each come into dangerous conflict with a ruthless bishop, who will do anything to increase his wealth and power, in an epic tale of ambition and rivalry, death and birth, and love and hate."
I haven't read previous novels from Kingsbridge series, so the perspective of getting acquainted with the saga in chronological order was thrilling.
The story follows three main characters: the boat builder, the noblewoman, and the monk. Their fates weave separately at the beginning, but eventually, their paths join together.
The characters themselves, to me, fall a bit flat. They are likeable enough but come across as two-dimensional.
Edgar, the boatbuilder, is a very talented craftsman, who can figure out how to build things by looking at them and examining how they work. In the course of the story, he evolves from a boatbuilder to a farmer and into a stonemason.
Ragna, the Norman noblewoman, smart and politically savvy, falls in love with English noble and marries him for love. His family is not very fond of her intelligence or her hold on Wilwulf.
Aldred, the monk, wants to make his abbey a centre of learning, but for getting in Bishop's way, he's in charge of a falling-apart church in Dreng's Ferry.
The intrigue is tightly woven. As expected from a book set at the end of the Dark Ages, the world is full of unending horrors. Caught in the power struggle between the Church* and the Lords, characters rely on their wits and alliances to survive. The book covers ten years - it starts with a boy running away from home and a Viking raid, as the events unfold and the powers shift, so does the prosperity of Dreng's Ferry. The settlement starting with a decrepit alehouse, a ferry, and a small, corrupt monastery, is evolving with the characters.
The language is descriptive. It takes time to introduce the characters, their agendas, their allegiances and lives. Follett doesn't shy away from showing the harshness of the story's setting, though, on some occasions, I had to question the use of violence. I do not deny that the Dark Ages were a horrible time to be alive. However, it is possible to talk about violence (especially violence against women), in a mindful manner. The depictions of infanticide, imprisonment, rape, and taking away children to punish a woman were neither mindful nor entirely necessary to progress the plot or the character development.
Another bit of criticism is related to LGBTQ themes - it felt as if those were an afterthought, something that must have happened to appeal to modern audiences. Unfortunately, using a trope of homosexuality among clergy is overused and boring. I was expecting more of an author of such renown.
In fact, adding to this list a dryly written sex scene, and this book almost ended up on my Did-Not-Finish list.
I was curious is similar was the case for other books from the Kingsbridge series. From reading other reviews, it seems that this time the author spends considerably less time pondering the size of a woman's breasts or her attractiveness. As this doesn't bode well for my enjoyment of the rest of the Kingsbridge novels, I will not be revisiting this series.
* In England circa 1000, in some places, Christianity's hold was nominal - priests could have wives, polygamy and slavery were not unusual, and women could hold property in their own names. The name of the Church was often used to progress one's own interests.
-----The Evening and the Morning on Goodreads