Mark Alder’s lengthy opener in what looks like a trilogy is really rather good. It’s unique, wryly humorous in its prose, affably accurate in its historical timeline, prosaically fluent, and a darn good story to boot.
The story opens in 1330 with an explanation of the hierarchy of heaven and hell: that God is named Itheketer and rules Heaven with his angels, that Jesus is named Lucifer and rules Free Hell where fallen angels are named demons. Satan is God’s lieutenant and he and his devils constantly batter at the walls of Free Hell to prevent Lucifer establishing a Kingdom on Earth where a grievously wounded God cannot venture unless the Antichrist removes a sword from his bowels. All pure fantasy which is then overlaid on fourteenth century England, France and Spain during the a fraction of the period of the misnamed Hundred Years War. From 1337 until Crecy in 1346, the action sweeps from battlefields to monasteries, from fairytale-esque castles and towers to rough and ready slums. Characters are parodies of historical personages, events are lit up by fantastical beings. Devils are corrupted, foul things with a glum sense of humour; angels are epically ethereal, vacuous, vapid and egotistical creatures of light. It is a world where “dealing with divine powers is the province of kings; dealing with diabolic powers that of the damned.”
Amongst them stride Edward III of England, a King without angels as his father lies on a briar altar containing the Evertere holy banner; Philip VI of France, a diplomatic King who prefers to avoid direct battle despite his archangels and Oriflamme banner; Isabella of France, Edward’s mother and a sorceress; and the young demi-feline Charles II of Navarre. A step below this are a cast of dozens, headed by the utterly English William Montagu, Dowzabel the Antichrist, Orsino, Edwin the priest, Osbert the Pardoner, and the banker Bardi. Then there is the arch-devil Hugh Despenser, recently returned from Hell to wreak revenge on the English.
What makes this novel intellectually fun is the sardonic humour that fills the novel. Quips from Edward and Montagu make light of worldly politics, the humour of desperation seeps in every sentence from Osbert, a man who “had started life with many advantages, but had thrown them away to finish where he was now, among the flies, the offal and the stink of the marketplace…chief among his talents, was that he was a nimble man who could run quickly for one of such belly.”
The humour is intelligent and pointed. It is at times both modern, courtly, and others acerbic, sardonic and downright giggle-worthy.
“Unfortunately, killing bankers – however attractive and pleasurable that may be in the short term – tends to diminish one’s chances of credit at a time of future need.”
“‘Excellent Holland, excellent,’ shouted the old knight. `Much more like it. I think you’ve broken my ribs. Nice work.'”
“God is a banker. I like that Bardi. It would take an Italian to come up with such a heresy.”
“‘Where will you be?’
`Coordinating from up here.’
`It’s a sort of cowering.'”
There are light touches of philosophy:
“Equality is against God’s plan. A poor man is not equal to a king, as a rat is not equal to a lion.”
“‘We are all the same rank dead, priest.’ said Orsino. `That,’ declared Edwin, `shows a fundamental misunderstanding of the Nature of Heaven.'”
At times, the author shows a neat turn of descriptive prose:
“Glutinous light, light that floated in blobs and pools like those shimmering stars that halo the vision on rising too quickly, filled the chapel. It was a light of storms, of the war between the sun and the dark clouds, of an effusion of gold breaking from the gloom of a rainsoaked hill.”
The novel brings together many strands through the oft-used literary fantasy medium of a quest. Whether it be Montagu enthralled by Isabella, Edward III loping round France seeking battle, Dowzabel trying to find Edward II, Bardi trying to get his debts paid, or Osbert just trying to stay ahead of the games and out of magic circles, the characters move through human and magical means inexorably towards the Battle of Crecy. Of course, most will know how this history ends, but the pleasure here is not in the destination but in the sometimes ludicrous, often deft, telling of the narration what with its forays into Hell, its magic and fantasy, its angels and demons. Belief must be suspended, an appreciative sensor of humour is vital to understanding what the author has created.
It is a novel that demands to be read, rather than glossed through; requires consideration and attention to see the multiple layers that build up the form of the story. To look at its back jacket you might think it is just another piece of historical fiction but it is not. It is a well-told novel of high fantasy; it is neither George R Martin nor Philippa Gregory, but something that takes echoes of those authors and adds a huge dose of individuality. A lengthy novel, but well worth the time. I look forward to the next one.