The Evening and the Morning (Kingsbridge)

Written by Ken Follett
Review by Sarah Johnson

Over a century before The Pillars of the Earth, the future English cathedral town of Kingsbridge is a mere hamlet with a stone church, ferry, alehouse, and a scattering of humble buildings. Follett’s supremely entertaining prequel centers on the locale known then as Dreng’s Ferry – named after a surly business owner – and the city of Shiring, while dramatizing their inhabitants’ interactions around the first millennium CE.

Three plucky protagonists have ambitious dreams that set them apart. Edgar, an illiterate boatbuilder with an engineer’s mind, loses his lover to a brutal Viking raid and works to raise his family out of poverty. Lady Ragna, the Count of Cherbourg’s daughter, leaves Normandy to marry her wealthy betrothed but is dismayed by her new life’s reality. And a monk, Brother Aldred, seeks to develop his abbey’s scriptorium and library into an educational beacon. However, with political influence held by a trio of wily brothers and their relatives, anyone stepping outside their societal role risks having their hopes, indeed their very lives, crushed. Wynstan, Bishop of Shiring, is a notably formidable nemesis.

Bursting with personality and detailed re-creations of daily life in historic England, this story is vintage Follett. Anyone who loved Pillars will want to scoop it right up. The characters, while belonging to their era, are recognizable types that make it easy to identify with or hiss at them. The momentum never flags, an impressive achievement in a tome that sprawls in length but not setting or time. Two pervasive themes are the corruption of power, and how average people have few choices. King Ethelred is a distant presence, and justice depends on leaders’ personalities and whims. Slave girls suffer particularly violent fates. It is frustrating to see our heroes’ plans so frequently thwarted, but one can’t help but read on, hoping for a better future – as the evocative title signifies.