While every effort has been made to avoid spoilers in this post, anyone who has not read The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is hereby advised that this post may contain a few unavoidable spoilers.
This review reflects only my own personal opinions and impressions.
Well last week it was all about children’s books; this week I’m reviewing a book that is definitely not suitable for children. The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett is a hefty tome about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge in 12th century England. It’s full of lovable and deplorable characters, political intrigue, technical details about medieval construction and just a little bit more sex and sexual violence than was necessary.
One of my favourite things about this story was how well paced it was. Given that this is a story about building a cathedral and is set over a period of several decades, and also bearing in mind that thrillers are Ken Follett’s usual racket, there was a very real danger of this story either being an absolute drag or being inappropriately fast-paced. I needn’t have worried. The blend of fast scenes and slow scenes is beautiful and appropriate, making this lengthy novel a constant page-turner from start to finish.
Now let’s talk characters. I honestly can’t decide if the characters in this story are one of its best qualities or one of its worst. In some ways I liked them. They’re all quite distinctive with clearly defined personality traits and its also pretty clear that each character is driven by firmly established motives and goals. Very good indeed. If we know what drives a character, it’s easy to care about what happens to him, even if the subject matter is foreign or uninteresting to us. This makes The Pillars of the Earth a real page-turner when it could have just as easily been a bore.
When I first began to talk about the idea for Pillars, some people hated the idea. “Nobody cares about building a church in the Middle Ages,” they said. But readers will care about it if the characters care.
Having said that, there was also something a little bit tedious about some of the characters (with the major exception of Philip and, to a lesser extent, Jack). The female protagonists are strong and beautiful (oh and Aliena has huge breasts, we’re constantly reminded); the male protagonists are brave and noble and the antagonists are devious and brutal. William Hamleigh, the primary antagonist, is the worst for this. He’s devious, cowardly, violent, greedy and licentious with absolutely no redeeming qualities. But just in case we’re in any doubt that he’s the bad guy, he rapes way more people than is necessary for one story. Seriously, this guy does a lot of raping, pretty much whenever he’s not tormenting the poor or burning villages. The good guys in this story never rape of course, but they do have lots of consensual sex to the point of implausibility. While most of the sex scenes are not explicitly described (though a few are), some of the characters are portrayed as being at it on a several-times-a-day-every-day basis and still find time to build a cathedral, overcome one disaster after another and fight the bad guys. I dunno, maybe they’re just really good at organising their time, but between this and the manifold references to the size of Aliena’s breasts, it sometimes just felt a bit like the authors’ mind was wandering. That’s just my opinion though.
In many respects, this is a story with several different layers to it. There are several protagonists whose stories we follow, each overlapping and interacting with one another while yet remaining distinctive. Tom wants nothing more than to build a cathedral but cares for his family. Jack is a boy who lived in the forest, now growing into a man who is consumed with questions about his deceased father. His very much a coming-of-age type story. Aliena is the daughter of a disgraced earl who has sworn to help her brother reclaim the earldom, and finds herself constantly pulled in all directions by her sense of duty to others. Prior Philip is driven by his zealous faith in God and his sense of righteousness. He tries earnestly to do what is right on earth and to glorify God by the building of the cathedral and yet is in constant conflict with his own sense of pride and self-doubt. These are just a selection of the main players in this story, all of whose individual story-lines overlap and diverge to create an intricate tapestry of skilfully executed fiction. It really is a thing of beauty.
All in all, The Pillars of the Earth is a great story. It’s got plenty of excitement, plenty of sentiment and
Aliena has big breasts all of the characters are driven by goals and motives that we really care about. The many threads that comprise the plot are magnificently woven together to form a novel which is well constructed and handles potentially dry subject matter in a way which is enjoyable and entertaining. Worth a look, even if it’s not your usual preferred genre. Just don’t read it to your kids.
My rating: 🌟🌟🌟🌟
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