Cathedral of the Sea: A Novel
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81 of 89 people found the following review helpful
on May 10, 2008
"Comparisons to Ken Folletts Pillars of the Earth are being made..." is a bit too deceptive for my taste. Cathedral of the Sea is a good historical novel--with a good translation--about life in Barcelona in the 1300's. The central figure, Arnau Estanyol, spends part of his life carrying stones for the building of a cathedral. But the cathedral is not a dominant factor in the book. In Follett's Pillars of the Earth, the building of the cathedral and its architecture was a dominant central factor. In the sequel--set in the 1300's like the review book--the cathedral is still a significant factor, though not as dominating as in Pillars. So if you're expecting to read about the architecture and the building of a cathedral in Barcelona in detail, you won't find it here.

Follett's two novels had a lot of depth, and dark mystery. Cathedral of the Sea is more straightforward--there are not the politics, the undertones, the buried (literally) secrets in Follett's novels, and the characters are often rather one-dimensional. But it does give a good sense of time and place, and life in Barcelona in the 1300s is probably less familiar to US readers than life in England at the same time. The Black Death sweeps into this novel, as it did in World Without End, and you'll also get a view (similar to Follett's works) of the contrast between the poor, the wealthy, and the nobility.

Some of the elements in this novel seem a bit contrived: Arnau rises from an orphaned runaway serf to become a major figure in Barcelona, and marries into the nobility. In Pillars of the Earth, Tom is a skilled artisan: the rise in rank is much less, and more believable. Unlike World Without End, the Inquisition enters the scene. There's an interesting comment from an Inquisitor to the effect "Pain is an acceptable means of extracting confessions, so long as it does not result in death or the loss of a limb". This seems to have a familiar ring to it. So overall, what you get is a well-written historical novel, with a good portrayal of time and place that has some of the flavor of Follett, but without the complexity and depth of both the story and the characters in Follett's novels.
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30 of 35 people found the following review helpful
Ildefonso Falcones' novel, set in Catalonia, has been compared to Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth, both positively and negatively. Pillars of the Earth is one of my favorite books, but I have enjoyed Falcones also, even though its style is different. Follett's book is a consistent page-turner; Cathedral begins more slowly but as the plot and characters develop, becomes a real page-turner also. Falcones includes helpful background history of Barcelona and 14th century Europe which will probably be unfamiliar to most American readers. You may want to skim the sections which describe the battles for control of the Mediterranean and for recapture of the areas of France which were originally Catalan. You can still understand the story without remembering the names of all those kings!

Cathedral was a best-seller in Europe. I would never have heard of it had I not found a copy in my hotel breakfast room in Bordeaux this summer. It was written in Spanish and has been ably, but not flashily, translated into English. The style is plain and direct. If you don't require heightened dramatic language in your fiction, then perhaps you will like this book.

The title reflects the setting of the book, Barcelona during the years when the cathedral Santa Maria de la Mar was built. If the descriptions pique your curiosity, google the cathedral and you will find wonderful pictures on various web sites. Its design is unusual and the story of its construction "by the people and for the people" of Barcelona is worth knowing. This book is a fine way to learn more about medieval Catalonia while enjoying the ins and outs of a complex plot, plenty of moral conflict, and interesting, unpredictable characters.

We first meet Arnau Estanyol as a baby, when his father Bernat is forced by his feudal lord's violence to choose between servitude on his own land or a chance of freedom if he flees to his sister in Barcelona. At the age of fourteen, Arnau joins the Barcelona guild of bastaixos, or porters, who load and unload cargo from the ships and who serve the Virgin of the Sea by carrying the stones from which her cathedral is to be built. (You can find a photo of a relief sculpture of such a porter on the website Sacred Destinations.) Eventually, with the help of a Jewish family, he becomes a wealthy moneylender and financier. He is a good man, and finds a way to stay true to himself even as he is forced unwillingly to marry the king's ward and become a nobleman. In this position, he cleverly finds a legal way to free the peasants from the many exploitive laws which prevent them from earning a living as free men. He avenges his father's humiliation and death without undue cruelty - but the small mercy that he shows comes back to haunt him as the enemies of his family nearly succeed in destroying him.

Some turns of plot are so positive that one questions their probability; but other events balance this out with all-too-realistic negative endings. It would be nice to think that a noble of Arnau's station would have been given the power by a technicality in Catalonian law to set entire provinces of serfs free from feudal requirements; I am not enough of a medievalist to know. But Falcones' author's note details many of the historical facts on which his fiction has been based and gives one confidence that his history is reliable.

Individuals work the laws of Catalonia to their own advantage, and good-hearted nobles like Arnau are caught in the middle, as are peasants and slaves and tradesmen. There are chilling descriptions of the operation of the Inquisition in the villages and in the city of Barcelona, as well as of Christians' willingness to believe that the Jewish people crucify children and defile hosts. These scenes, and the portrait of Arnau's brother Joan who first becomes a Franciscan and then a Dominican inquisitor, are probably the basis for comparisons of this book to Brown's Da Vinci Code. However, Falcones' Joan is a more complex and tortured character than Brown's albino monk, and Falcones' history, unlike Brown's, has a firm factual basis. The opinions of women and peasants voiced by many characters in the book have been taken from the 1381 writings of the monk Francesc Eiximenis; no, Falcones is not making this up!

"Can these people really be your representatives?" asks Arnau of the Virgin of the Sea, the only mother he has ever known. Arnau's faith and goodness in the face of adversity speak eloquently for the reality of God, whose presence in this book is powerful in defending His true servants of all faiths, perhaps even especially when His earthly representatives betray Him.
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17 of 21 people found the following review helpful
I bought this for a vacation trip, and was absolutely delighted. I had not encountered the author prior to this novel. The central character, Arnau, is wonderful to follow through the years. I initially bought this due to my interest in cathedral building, and while that theme is there, it isn't as important as Arnau's journey.

It satisfied my interest in the culture and society of these times, especially the role and power of the Catholic Church, which apparently dominated most if not all aspects of a person's lifetime.

It has also a good understanding of the role of faith or lack, in these times. Arnau and his "brother" Joan take different paths and the contrast is evident. I will probably get the book referred in another review, Pillar, as that seems a good and more thorough recounting of the building aspect of a cathedral. But that doesn't diminish my appreciation for Cathedral of the Sea. Falcones is a gifted story teller.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful
on October 2, 2014
The excessive brutality to women in this novel makes it unreadable. As a professional historian, I appreciate the historical accuracy of rape and abuse perpetrated against women in the medieval world. Nevertheless, Falcones seems to revel in brutality against all of his female characters, who are - without exception - either victims of rape or noblewomen who use their position to perpetrate brutality on the women and men below them. The book begins with a brutal rape, followed by more and more rape of the same character. Perhaps I should have stopped there. But I read on, hundreds of pages of rape, forced imprisonment, plague, adultery, and more rape. Falcones does periodically bring moments of justice to his oppressed characters.

But he destroyed my trust as a reader when he transformed the main character's brother into a willing accomplice in abduction, brutal multiple rapes, and forced marriage. What caring brother and priest would do this to his brother and niece? I closed the book and cursed the author. Authors control the worlds they create. Falcones must have something dark inside him to twist even his sympathetic characters into the worst of misogynists.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on June 3, 2010
SOME SPOILERS.

Proud Spanish families, medieval times, the feudal system, lords, serfs, peasants, submission, the plague, and, of course, beautiful Barcelona....all of this and more are the makeup of Cathedral of the Sea.

Beautiful Barcelona was the salvation and dream of all peasants and serfs...it promised freedom if you lived there for one year and a day. Bernat Estanyols and his infant son Arnau fled to Barcelona to obtain their freedom after they lost everything to the Llorence de Bellera, lord of Navarcles. Llorence was a brutal, greedy man.

Luckily Bernat's sister lived in Barcelona and was married to a wealthy potter. His sister allowed him to live in their complex....Bernat worked for his brother-in-law but had to live with the peasants and slaves. Arnau was educated along with his cousins and was allowed to live in the mansion.

Bernat and Arnau achieved their year and one day in Barcelona with hardships and heartaches happening in that time frame and then Arnau was forced out of the house because of an incident, became sad because of the incident, and was no longer allowed to live in the mansion and be educated along with his cousins. Arnau has nothing to do during the day but watch his cousins play. One day he meets a tattered young boy with nothing to do either, and they become friends. During their daily searches and playtime, they find the Santa Maria church under construction. They are fascinated with the way the HUGE stones are pulled to the top and put into place. They spend their days at the site providing water to the workers and enjoying their company.

As much fun as they were having and despite the friendships they were making, Arnau's father was still despised by his brother-in-law's NEW wife and so was Arnau. She tried to get them in trouble and forced her serfs to do things that would make Bernat and Arnau look like the guilty party. Misfortune continued to plague Arnau and his father as everyone in Barcelona except the rich and noble were starving because there was no wheat to feed anyone or it was at an unreachable price.

Arnau gets into some trouble of his own, and the heartache continues in beautiful Barcelona....serfs were never respected and blamed for things they didn't even commit. One piece of good fortune does come to Arnau through his friendships with the bastaixos, the workers who carry the giant boulders for the building of the great cathedral, and Father Albert's kindness and feelings for young Arnau.

Arnau becomes favored among his fellow bastaixos and his adopted brother, Joan, studies for the priesthood. Arnau becomes enamored by a girl whose father won't let him marry her and then marries another since his brother said he won't go into the priesthood until Arnau is married and has someone to take care of him. Arnau can't refuse his brother or let him not become a priest so he marries someone he really doesn't love. His wife, Maria, was so kind, affectionate, loving, and trusting and Arnau was not being faithful. He got tired of being unfaithful to his wife since she was such a good person and decided the only way to get away from his mistress was to join the army. His wife was accepting, but his mistress was not.

Adventures continue for Arnau...good and bad adventures that include his mistress.

When the war was over, Arnau came back home to his wife but happiness still avoided him...the plague had arrived in Barcelona. The Jewish people were blamed for the plague...the citizens of Barcelona were killing the Jewish children and adults...Arnau came between three small children and a citizen who was going to kill them. Arnau was hurt while defending the children, but it turned out to be the best thing that happened to him. The Jewish family nursed Arnau back to health and became very fond of Arnau. To repay Arnau for saving his children, the children's father helped Arnau become a money changer.

Another Jewish child had no parents and Arnau was asked to adopt her. Mar lived with Arnau and was educated and very happy. Mar was devastated when the King demanded that Arnau marry his ward, Eleanor, for repayment of saving Barcelona from another invasion. He didn't want to get married, but couldn't refuse the King so he married. As you can imagine, it wasn't a happy union...in fact, they rarely talked to each other or slept together. Eleanor got tired of waiting to consummate their marriage not because she loved Arnau, but because she was worried what would happen to Arnau's fortune if he died. She didn't want Mar to receive all the riches, and that could be done because under the law at that time, if a marriage was not consummated, then the wife had no right to anything. Because of this concern, Joan and Eleanor devised an unthinkable plan for Mar.

Everything went downhill for Arnau after the incident with Mar...friends betrayed him, the de Belleras came back for revenge along with others, and his business was in jeopardy, but his beloved church was progressing and his Virgin of the Sea was still there for him.

The book was a little slow at first, but the history of Barcelona, the building of the church, and the way people lived and were ruled was fascinating. It also makes one glad to not be living during that era.

It is a long book, but it gets better so don't give up. I enjoyed the history lesson and, of course, the descriptions of ancient Barcelona...what a beautiful, historical city then and now. 5/5
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on October 1, 2012
I picked up this well crafted historical epic masterpiece at a charity shop and am so thrilled that I did. It is passionate and beautiful, inspiring , uplifting and heartbreaking, with a strong feel for 14th century Catalonia at the height of the Inquisition

Arnau Estanyol is the son of a fugitive serf who acquires freedom, wealth and a high status through the help of his Jewish benefactor Hasdai Crescas and the Moorish slave he is given to him, Guillem, after the rescues Hasdai's three young children and the slave from a mob which has attacked the Jewry in Barcelona in a bloodthirsty pogrom caused by a blood libel. He achieves great military success against the attacking ships of the enemy king of Castille, and is elevated to the nobility while being forced marry the ward of the King, Eleanor who he does not love, as his heart belongs to the enchanting girl he adopted after the death of her parents, the attractive and lively Mar.

Arnau is betrayed by his adopted brother Joan, who has become a cruel and narrow-minded inquisitor , who together with the evil Eleanor plan and execute the kidnap, rape and forced marriage of Mar. Arnau falls foul of the inquisition, and the author gives a great insight into the machinations of the Spanish Inquisition, and it's purge of Jews and 'Heretics'

Meanwhile two women who have been earlier in their lives forced into prostitution, Arnau's mother (unbeknown to him) Francesca and Arnau's first love the alluring and goodhearted Aledis. I like his sympathetic portrayal of the prostitutes, and his reminder to us that often it is many whores who's hearts are much bigger than those of the the saints. The book is lingeringly erotic in parts SPOILER WARNING

Together with Mar and Guillem they rescue Arnau from death at the hands of the inquisition

This book is not only a real page turner, of which the last 150 pages are particularly enthralling but an analysis of historical events including the Inquistion and anti-Semitism, society and human nature.
Highly recommended.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on September 12, 2012
Many comparisons of this book have been made to "Pillars of the Earth". Both novels take place during the Middle
Ages and the setting often revolves around the building of a cathedral. That, however, is where the similarity
ends. "Pillars" is an exciting mystery with many evil characters. This story is a beautifully written saga set
in Spain of a family's struggle to survive the times, eg, an evil feudal overlord, a nasty brother-in-law, a war,
the plague, the inquisition and a rift between the main character's adopted brother, WHEW!

I personally found the first half of the novel involving Arnau's father the most fascinating. After Arnau joins
the King's army, the story dragged for me a bit. Also, too much detail was spent on his moneylending career.
Arnau's adopted brother's reentry into the story seemed a bit contrived to me and his scheming against Arnau
was a bit out of character.

Finally, I honestly sometimes forgot that the story was suppose to take place during the 1300's. Yes, I
realize that Spain was quite advanced, but, really?!

For a novel of this length, the author seemed to me to skimp on some plot details such as the relationship
with Arnau's first wife and the devastation caused by the plague while embellishing other plot lines such as Arnau's money lending career and the war.

All in all, most of the characters were well developed and the story was beautifully written. On a personal
note though, I much preferred "THE HEAVEN TREE TRIOLOGY" which was also quite verbose or "A BRIDGE TO THE
SKY", a novel I wish would be reprinted!!
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3 of 4 people found the following review helpful
on September 10, 2010
If you consider yourself a literary gourmet, this is not the book for you. It is akin to the books by Bernard Cornwell or even the Hornblower series --- a fast moving historical novel with accurate history of the time and a coincidence-driven plot. Since I like the Cornwell and Forrester books and got bogged down in Ken Follett's tomes, I loved this book!

The story unfolds linearly, almost as if it's a saga. We follow Arnau, the protagonist, starting with the circumstances surrounding his birth and follow him through old age. Other characters come and go and some of them reappear but there's never a doubt who is the protagonist. The one thing about the plot line that strikes me as true is that Arnau "pinballs" through life, advancing through his response to circumstances. It is one of those stories that is so outlandish, it could have happened!

The English translation is straightforward. The translator uses common Anglo-Saxon words and does not clutter up the translation with literary devices. True, there were shifts in point of view that may confuse. There also was author intrusion with historical data that slowed down the plotline but gave needed insights into a little known period of history.

In short, Cathedral Of The Sea is a great potboiler that was hard to put down.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on July 26, 2010
I just finished the English translation. I very much enjoyed the flow of the story over many decades and the development of the many characters. In this story all the action takes place in or near to Barcelona at a time when Spain was split into several feudal kingdoms. At first I was concerned about the translation but soon forgot I was not reading the original words. During the course of the story I researched the Santa Maria church and was awned by its beauty and having those pictures in mind really helped my appreciation of the story. I was also impressed with the authors knowledge of 14th century commerce and customs and how it made for exciting addition to the story. As the story came to an end I felt I was saying good by to a family I had to come enjoy spending time with. Overall highly recommend if you like historical fiction from this time period.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on May 25, 2014
Fantastic insight into 13th cent Spain. Plot has just the right amount of twists and diverse characters. Loved being put in front of the inquisition. The work of Goya has always intrigued me and this made some of his prints come alive, captions and all. Some unfortunate truths regarding the treatment of women throughout history. I just have to ask, what happened to Mar's first son? Regardless, great learning experience. A pleasurable and informative read.
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