These would have to be two of the best books I’ve ever read. Both concern themselves with a fictional English medieval village – or town, as it later becomes – called Kingsbridge. Ken Follett, perhaps more famous for his World War II spy thrillers such as Eye of the Needle, effortlessly transfers his skills to the historical epic. His talent for suspense does this genre no harm. Both books are superbly plotted and well researched.
Pillars of the Earth is set in the 12th century, an amazing time which saw the birth of Western civilization as it clawed its way out of the Dark Ages, yet still riven by rampant Feudalism and, in England’s case, a drawn-out civil war. The central plot-line concerns itself with the building of a great Gothic cathedral. 1000-plus pages of cathedral building? you ask dubiously. Fear not, there’s not a boring page in the entire opus. A host of characters, spanning two generations, drives the plot along. One can only read with delight the manoeuvrings and scheming of its heroes and villains. I kept thinking of a game of bridge or five hundred: you get to see all the cards, then watch them as they’re played, expertly, one by one. Rarely will you see characters you like so well suffering so much and rarely will you clamour so hard for the nasty people to get their just deserts.
World Without End is a worthy sequel, set two centuries later. It lacks the brilliant “heart” of the first book, for by this time the cathedral is built. There is a bridge, and some cathedral renovations, both symbolic of wider events just as the cathedral was in the first book, and some people have criticized WWE for these less inspiring constructions. The criticism is, however, unfounded. If anything, WWE is even more intricately plotted than PotE and I, personally, found it a fraction more entertaining, thanks in no small part to the arrival of the Black Death half way through, and also the confidence I had gained from reading the first, in knowing that Follett was an author who ‘delivered the goods’. So many books start off with a promising idea or two but finish lamely because the author never quite worked out how to finish everything off. I don’t know how much Follett worked out in advance or made up as he went along, but it all fits together fantastically. What a truly terrifying time in which to live (or die, as a third of them did). Whilst WWE has many similarities to the first book, it is not repetitive. I read them back to back, no problem at all. My only quibble is that WWE has more sex in it than it really needs – not all of it; indeed, it’s an integral part of the lives and loves of these well drawn-out characters and many plot developments hinge on their fulfilled or unfulfilled desires – but there are only so many times Merthin needs to recall ‘feeling up’ Caris next to a pillar.
Both books celebrate the struggle of mind, reason and ability over superstition, violence and jealousy. Apparently, Pillars of the Earth was a ‘sleeper’, its sales starting slowly, largely overlooked by critics at the time. Word of mouth ensured its rise to the top of the bestseller list, and you’ll now find it in most bookstores ‘Top 100’ section. For very good reason.