Since my last review was of Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth, it is only natural that I follow it up with the 2007 sequel, World Without End. The book is set in the same fictional city of Kingsbridge over a century later, beginning in the year 1327 and covering a large portion of the 14th century. Many of the characters are also descendants of characters from The Pillars of the Earth, with the main character Merthin and his brother Ralph being descendants of the protagonists, Jack and Aliena. Amonst other things, World Without End covers the subject of the hundred year war and the plague, with the latter forming an important part of the plot. The plot begins when Merthin, Ralph, Merthin’s love interest Caris, and other girl Gwenda encounter knight Sir Thomas Langley, who hides a letter and instructs them to dig it up in the event of his death. From there, years pass and like the last novel the characters become entwined in the life and politics of the era.
The first thing to note is how similar the characters are. Merthin is basically the same character as his ancestor, Jack. He is indecisive, and is hopelessly in love with Caris. Caris is the same strong independent woman character as Aliena, but is not a noblewoman. Like their predecessors, events seem to conspire to keep the two from hitching up for as long as possible. Merthin even moves away and has a child before finally returning to Kingsbridge after said wife dies, a plotline which I felt unnecessary. Even after returning he has to deal with the fact that Caris is now a nun, and as a whole the two seem to have far too many obstacles to deal with.
The villains are essentially the same. The twist is that the asshole local lord character is in fact Merthin’s brother Ralph, who is granted land after saving the life of Earl Roland. Consequently he has a touch more character development and is far more interesting than William Hamleigh was. The corrupt priest character role is taken up by two people, Godwyn and Philemon. Godwyn appears to be the main antagonist, similar to Biship Waleran, but in a major twist he dies in the plague after fleeing to escape the disease. Afterwards Philemon takes over the role. While seeing the copycat Godwyn die was a breath of fresh air Philemon suffers from basically going on to do the exact same thing, essentially becoming the same character wearing a different face. Consequently the twist came off as needless, since they basically replaced Godwyn with a character just like him.
The biggest character thing however is the fourth lady, Gwenda. She suffers from the least characterisation despite being one of the book’s point of view characters. Her most notable, and only real accomplishment is marrying her sweetheart Wulfric. This happens relatively early in the plot, putting them in contrast with Merthin and Caris. She is unbearingly passive from that point onwards and basically becomes a lust object for Ralph. Her point of view segments then basically serve as a way to show how much of an asshole Ralph is as he continues to lust after her long into her married life. He even fathers a son by her after she attempts to gain favour with him, only for him to later go back on his word. As a whole she serves no purpose to the plot, and is probably the least likeable character in the book.
The plot is the same as Pillars of the Earth, in many respects and suffers from many of the same flaws. The character arcs are unbearably long and take large portions of the book and many in-story years before they fully resolve themselves. Ralph’s story arc has a more direct conclusion, and also serves as one of the few moments where Gwenda’s story arc intersects with the main plot. After trying to bargain with Ralph after he blackmails her into having sex again, his child from their last union, Sam, kills him. As a result his end comes about as a result of his meddling with the protagonists’ lives, which is a more fitting end. However Philemon suffers from the same problem as Bishop Waleran, as he is unceremoniously shipped off to elsewhere after Merthin strikes a bargain with a member of the king’s court. The twists in the plot are sometimes unnecessary, like the previously mentioned twist with Godwyn. At times it also feels as though the black death is an excuse for Follett to get himself out of tight situations, like Merthin being married.
After reading it and thinking back I got the strong impression that Follett was making things up as he went along, just from the sheer number of pointless twists in it. At times it felt as though he was adding them for the sake of having a twist. I admit though that the twist of Godwyn was a breath of fresh air and if Follett had dealt with the aftermath better it would have been a much better twist. Overall I feel like World Without End is a work similar to Pillars of the Earth, that is aware of itself to a degree. However the attempts to differentiate itself are questionable at best and as a result I feel as though it fails to live up to its potential. Like Pillars of the Earth before it, there is enough detail in the setting for it to be decent but that is all it has going for it.
SCORE: 3/5 STARS
IN A WORD: INFERIOR