Ken Follett is probably one of my new favourite authors, and has written both thrillers and historical novels. His thrillers have yet to catch my eye and is unlikely that I will ever read one. However his historical novels, are… interesting. The word “interesting” in this context, has both good and bad connotations.
For a bit of background, I’ll say it now that I am no big fan of historical fiction and The Pillars of the Earth was originally an impulse purchase. The first thing that took me aback was how detailed it was. The Pillars of the Earth is a generational epic, which covers many aspects of life in the 12th century, such as marriage, religious conflic, and the civil war. One of the major recurring elements is the construction of a new cathedral, a process which spans multiple generations and a great majority of the book, with most of conflict driven by the politics surrounding its construction. It also keeps the conflict on a local level for the most part, which gives it time to focus on the characters on a local level. Since I find little pleasure in reading the sort of historical novels revolving around the big battles, this was a breath of fresh air to me.
The characters are for the most part functional. The protagonist, Jack, is nothing special but is for the most part functional. He is nice, with enough of an edge to make him interesting but not enough about him to make him memorable. His love interest, Aliena, and her plight to support her brother is reasonably interesting but at times I felt as though the complications in her relationship with Jack were superficial. Her marriage to Jack’s adopted brother, Alfred, in particular felt like it was thrown in to delay them getting together until nearer the end.
The two major villains of the piece suffer from being slightly stereotypical. William Hamleigh, the son of a minor lord, is not a nice man and commits attrocities left right and centre. While this may be par the course for a medieval novel, I felt as though his motives were lacking and there was nothing about him to distinguish him as a character. Since I like my villains to have redeeming qualities, or at the very least an interesting personality, I felt as though he was lacking. The other villain, Bishop Waleran, is a touch more interesting due to his intelligence but his character is ultimately just as underdeveloped. He is little more than a scheming bishop, a familiar archetype. Ultimately the villains of the piece are constructs designed to cause conflict for the protagonists where the book would otherwise become slow. The difference is that Follett somehow managed to disguise them as people, though in truth he did a mediocre job of it at best.
The plot of the books spans between the years 1123 – 1174, which makes it one of the most different books I’ve read since it follows the characters over a much larger timespan than the majority of books I’ve read. This however creates issues of its own, including pacing problems. The book starts out slow, and continues slow. The conflict also seems to die towards the end of the books, with neither of the two villains getting any direct retribution for their actions, at least not at the hands of the heroes. William’s cast almost passes since he is convicted of involvement in an assassination plot, and is convicted in part thanks to the efforts of the protagonist, however his arrest and involvement in the plot had no relation to the rest of the book’s conflict and thus felt a bit deus ex machina. Waleran however is the worst case. He simply turns up again, ruined and repetent, and beyond his current state of living he gains no real retribution for his actions.
Overall, the book is a decent read despite the flaws. It did more to grip me than any other book in the genre, which is far better than any other in the genre. While I am reasonably certain the book takes many artistic liberties with certain details, I am not clued up enough for such things to have a lasting impact on my reading experience. The book as a whole, proved very enjoyable despite the length. Despite the gripes, I would wholly recommend it to anyone who wants to read a historical fiction book but doesn’t care for the battles. It was enough to convert me to Ken Follett’s historical fiction as a whole, the rest of which I may well review in time.
SCORE: 4/5 STARS
IN A WORD: LONG.