The Evening and the Morning by Ken Follett was a must-read for me since I have read most of Follett’s books. The Kingsbridge series covered the ages when the great cathedrals were built. The books paint pictures of life in the days of guilds and the builders who were forerunners of Christopher Wren. This particular Follett offering is a prequel to the other Kingsbridge works. It is very early in the history of towns and we are in an England that is still rough, still being attacked by Viking raiders. There is a King but his attention is focused on stamping out the Viking raids that leave towns burned to the ground, that kill many English people, and that rob English subjects of any treasure that can be found from simple tools to expensive textiles and jewelry. If you live along the coast or on a river that can be reached from the coast an attack could come without warning in almost any season.
While the King is busy, some of his officials and priests and bishops are robbing everyone blind. Between corrupt and greedy leaders and Viking raids life is tenuous and depressing. From the bottom up citizens copy their leaders and are mean and brutal. Slavery is accepted if the slaves are conquered in a foreign war. Cathedral building is further advanced in Normandy than in Britain. Where there is a cathedral there is most likely a city. And, where there is a great builder, there is likely to be a great cathedral.
Edgar Builder is our handsome hero. He is the most talented of three brother who learned from their father how to build ships. Ship building skills can be useful in all kinds of building and Edgar is a creative person who understands innovation. His world is turned upside down when the coastal village where his family builds their ships is burned out by Vikings, his father is killed, and all his father’s tools are stolen. Edgar was just getting ready to run away with a married lady who was abused by her first husband. He was in love. That doesn’t go well and it affects Edgar deeply. Edgar’s mother is not a retiring woman, She negotiates some farmland in another village for her and her three sons.
The new village is a mean place and this is not a farm family, but they do manage to thrive because of the talents of the mother and of Edgar. The nearest town is Shiring ruled by three entitled brothers, Wifwulf, Wynstan, and Wigelm. Each one is a piece of work. Wifwulf finds a bride from an aristocratic family in Normandy. Ragna is young and lovely and not in the least submissive or stupid and yet these three brothers make her new life hard, hard enough to make a normal woman quit. But not Ragna.
It’s a love story and a story of corruption. Shiring already has a cathedral, but the Kings Bridge cathedral finally gets a start after many trials and enough abuse of power to ignite any readers sense of injustice. Life offers only the most minor and easily squashed victories. The novel was both a piece of historical fiction and a bodice ripper and not at all my favorite of the Ken Follett books in this series, but I could not stop reading it and if has left vivid scenes to play out in my mind.