on October 9, 2007
I am a big fan of Ken Follett, and admire that he moves in a seemingly effortless manner between genres. However, his best work is found in the "great historical novel", and he has delivered handsomely with this latest effort.
This is being touted as a sequel to "The Pillars of the Earth" which is true enough, but it is also a little misleading, as it is set 200 years after the tales told in that magnificent novel, and as such can definitely be read as a stand alone novel. Having said that though, if you haven't read "Pillars of the Earth" - do - it is magnificent!
Knowledge of this wonderful earlier work will be helpful, as there is reference to characters from that time and being familiar with their adventures certainly gives you some insight into what is happening at the time, but if you are new to Follett's work, please don't let this put you off. He mentions enough of the earlier characters (without being boring to those readers who know the book SO well)for any new reader to have an idea of what has happened before.
The tale seems simple enough - 4 very different young people witness a fight in the forrest which leads to death and the hiding of a great secret, and this reverberates through their lives for years to come. What is not simple enough is the detail that goes in to these character's lives - they are all wonderful in their own different ways, and we can all feel that we can see the world they live in, taste their food, smell the odours of their environment and rejoice and mourn as they do.
Follett is also the master of understanding how humans think; how they plot and scheme, and how the whims of fate can change a life that seems completely planned and organised. And all of this in a magnificent medieval setting with court intrigue, pious devotion, illness and the whims of nature! What more could you want?
If you like a good hefty historical novel with a great plot, detailed environment and well drawn and very engaging characters, you will NOT be disappointed. It is wonderful and I recommend it highly.
I am a big fan of Ken Follett's work, but know that most authors have occasional "duds", and at over 1000 pages (the British version I bought), I was concerned this would be a bloated, rambling disappointment. I also loved "Pillars of the Earth" when I read it many years ago but had forgotten all but being fascinated by learning cathedral construction techniques, so I was hesitant to read a "sequel" in case this book was dependent on remembering the first one. Still, because I read that this was a well researched and competent book, I decided to take a chance on it.
I am happy to report that my concerns were unfounded. The book is long, but it has a lot going on and is not at all bloated. There are several stories being told, but they all interweave and the elimination of one would be a loss. Although it is set in the same location and refers back to some of the original characters, reading or remembering "Pillars" is not required. I enjoy learning about the construction and medical theories of the day and wish this aspect had been further expanded, but if a reader does not, there is not so much of it that it would be detrimental.
All in all, if you like historical fiction with plenty of death, love and destruction, this book is highly recommended. The length of the book will dissuade some from trying it, but those who have longer attention spans will not be disappointed.
The Pillars of the Earth has been one of my all-time favorite books, and so I was a little skeptical about how good its sequel could be. My concern was totally unnecessary. World Without End, which takes place in the same town of Kingsbridge almost 200 years later and has the cathedral as its backdrop, is an excellent book and I expect that in time it will also be considered to be a masterpiece. Not having read The Pillars of the Earth will not deter you in any way from enjoying World Without End, as other than the common thread mentioned above, it reads like a stand-alone. Follett packs it all in this 1,024 page book -- love, greed, pride, ambition and revenge. Do yourself a favor and be one of the first on line to get yourself a copy of this very entertaining and memorable book. But be aware that your enjoyment won't come cheap -- the retail price of World Without End is $35. I think you'll find, however, that it is worth every penny.
Reading The Pillars of the Earth (Deluxe Edition) (Oprah's Book Club) was one of the happiest accidents in my reading career. I picked it up on a whim because of the cathedral on the cover and the word "epic" in a review. I had no idea it would turn out to be one of the best books I ever read, not on in terms of plot but completeness and the overall message of world change it puts out. So when I found out about the sequel I was thrilled. I ordered it two years in advance.
But I was disappointed. While "World without End" is compelling stuff with endless twists in it's storyline and characters you grow fond of, this book just doesn't have that epic pizzazz that "Pillars" had in spades. A lot of the events in this book seem to be rehashed from its predecessor and now that the cathedral is built it seems that the major issues facing Kingsbridge (like becoming a town in its own right, having a cathedral at all) are over and done with. "Pillars" was at its heart a book about creation and the forces of the time that caused that-the church, the ruling class, the merchants, even the peasents. Its a book about a developing society that is setteling down not only from the recent Norman invasion, but is gearing up to be one of the greatest empires the world will ever see (even though that happens hundreds of years later.) This book has no unifying theme that creates the epic feel that "Pillars" had-the sense that you were reading about something great (though fictional) in history.
Anyway the basic plot follows the formula from "Pillars." We start out with a piece of a mystery that gradually revels clues to us as we read on. In this case, four children, two sons of an impoverished knight, (Ralph and Merthin) one wealthy daughter of a prosperous wool merchant (Caris) and a dirt poor urchin girl who steals so her family can live (Gwenda), witness a man attacked in the woods because of a letter he is carrying. This experience binds the children for life-along with that of the attacked knight (Thomas) who becomes a monk so he is beyond the reach of whoever tried to kill him.
Of course we don't know what's in the letter, just that it has something to do with the death of King Edward II (the gay one who was disposed by his Queen and her lover so her son could rule) and if it's found heads will (literally) role.
But this mystery is secondary, almost a non-presence in the book compared to the drama of Jack's father's death in "Pillars." Also our main characters are like paler versions of the characters we loved and hated in "Pillars." Merthin is Jack, the fantastic, romantic builder with an almost supernatural ability with stone, Ralph is William, the corrupt knight with no moral center, Caris is Aliena, strong and with more business sense and determination than any women of the time, and Gwenda-well she's an entirely new character but she features so little it doesn't even matter.
My point is this-there isn't a whole lot that's original in this book. The romance is nowhere near as spellbinding as the tortured and blinding love the perfect Jack and Aliena from "Pillars" had. In fact, its two hundred years later and now Kingsbridge is one of the largest cities in England instead of a struggling town, but everything seems the same. The same conflicts happen again and again, the same character struggles. The only real difference is the emergence of the Black Death some lesbianism and a well described and probably realistic battle of the priory against the town (which frankly made me sad because Prior Phillip from "Pillars" would be so dissapointed at how the monastery developed.)
I'm not saying this is a bad book, its even compelling at times. But compared to "Pillars" it is a poor imitation of an almost perfect historical fiction novel. Who knows, maybe if you read this before Pillars (they aren't reliant on each other enough that order matters) it would seem like a better book then it is. But really, I expected more. I would put this on par with Follett's other two historical novels, A Place Called Freedom and A Dangerous Fortune but it's not in the same class as The Pillars of the Earth (Deluxe Edition) (Oprah's Book Club).
Of course not very many books are. Maybe one in a million.
So the real test, would I read this again. Sure. It was good after all-but it didn't live up to expectations created by "Pillars."
The only reason I finished this book was that the time period facinates me and I was curious to see if I could figure out why everything in Follett's novel was so uninspiring. Here are the major problems:
1. Follett has obviously done his research on the period, other than the language, but he lets it take center stage, to the detriment of his characters. It feels like he created a list of stock items from the middle ages and checked them off as he went along -- horny bishop: check; power-hungry priest: check; lesbian nun: check; lord of the manor who thinks his serfs don't matter as humans: check; black death: check; etc., etc., etc. He even brings in the flagellants, for no apparent reason, even though they really didn't exist to any significant degree in England. Most of it doesn't advance or have anything to do with the story -- it's just there so that he can get in everything having to do with the 14th century.
2. The characters don't feel like real people. It is possible to set a book in this time period and put characters in it that seem to live and breathe and make you care about them. Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book does this really well. When her characters die, you cry. Follett's main characters all miraculously survive the horrors of the century, and it's only the peripheral characters who die. Yet you don't feel their pain or their triumphs or anything much. They just don't seem real.
3. Follett attributes a 21st century sensibility to the characters that is out of keeping for even the most progressive people in the 14th century. I love the idea of a woman who wants to break out of the servitude and inferiority of women in the middle ages, but Caris, the lead female character, is an outright feminist. And when Merthin, the main male character, discovers that one of the monks in the town has been stealing things, he wonders if maybe it's a sickness. Give me a break! The notion that something that was considered a sin might have been caused by mental illness just didn't exist in the 14th century. The book is riddled with anachronistic attitudes such as these.
4. As other reviewers have pointed out, the book is filled with words and phrases that didn't exist in the 14th century. I appreciate that Follet has tried to make the language sound natural, rather than using the syntax of the period, which would have sounded natural to people in the middle ages but wouldn't to us. But using words like "senility" (which the Oxford English Dictionary records as not having appeared in pring until 1791), phrases like "gone missing" (a 20th century creation), etc., doesn't sound natural, it just takes you even further out of the time period. Particularly noticeable is that the characters call the plague "the plague." "Plague" wasn't used for any illness until much later. The people who lived through the Black Death (another term from much later) called it the "pestilence" or the "Great Mortality." They definitely did not use the term plague. If you don't know this, it might not make much difference to your enjoyment of the book, but if you're a history buff, things like this just take you further out of the action. Given how much research Follett obviously did on the period, the inattention to language just seems sloppy.
5. Some people have been offended by the amount of sex in the book. It's not the amount that's a problem. Let's face it -- there was no t.v., few people had books, and the main form of entertainment you could have after dark was sex. So it's not surprising to find alot of it. The problem is that it's gratuitous and written from a real male fantasy perspective. A sample from one of Follet's less graphic passages: "Caris had never seen Mair undressed, and she could not resist a peek. Her companion's naked body took her breath away. Mair's skin seemed to glow like a pink pearl. Her breasts were generous, with pale girlish nipples, and she had a luxuriant bush of fair public hair." And seriously -- how many times does Merthin have to look at a pillar and remember the time he "felt up" Caris there?
6. The mystery at the core of the book, having to do with the death of Edward II, is lame and implausible and there's really not much of a payoff. It feels tacked on in order to give the sense of a story, when the book is really not much more than a survey of the middle ages (albeit with the tacked on attitudes of modern times for the main characters).
I was so excited about reading this book, but it was a major disappointment, neither moving, nor particularly entertaining or informative. If you want to learn about the 14th century, I'd recommend Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century", Thomas Costain's series on the Plantagenets, particularly "The Three Edwards" (which covers the 14th century), Jonathan Sumption's books on the Hundred Years War, Paul B. Newman's "Daily Life in the Middle Ages," or for fiction, the aforementioned "The Doomsday Book." All would be better choices than this long (over 900 pages) and unengaging volume.
Historical purists will not be pleased. Neither will readers who make their selections based on the length of a book, or people who object to a little sex in their reading (World is hardly pornography), or religious fundamentalists.
But those who enjoy ripping epic adventures, historical settings, compelling characters, and plot twist after twist, should have a fine time in World Without End. Yes, it mimics its predecessor, but that is precisely what I, for one, was hoping for. Jumping back into Jack the Builder's city after 200 years was a joy. Few writers on the scene today are capable of creating such appealing protagonists and such hateful villains. Few are capable of filling 1000 pages with heartfelt conflict, human mistakes and foibles, or gut-wrenching turns of event. Follett can do all of this, and has proved it again in World.
The treatment of the bubonic plague in World is worthy of comment.
Rather than focus upon the horrific physical element, Follett has chosen to represent the vast psychological, financial, and societal consequences of this most devastating of diseases: the breakdown of mores, conventions, and behavior, the inability to produce enough food, the utter uselessness of mere wealth, the failure of the religious establishment to meet the needs of its flock. It is difficult today to imagine that time, and the narrative here helps.
Circumstances change, but human nature doesn't. Here's hoping Mr Follett has another Kingsbridge novel in him, set perhaps during the religious and political upheaval the characterized the Tudor era.
*** NO SPOILERS *** THIS REVIEW IS SAFE TO READ IF YOU HAVEN'T EVEN OPENED THE BOOK
Well, I am one of those people who thought Pillars of the Earth was one of the two or three best books I've ever read. I've read Pillars five times in total, pretty much once every few years since its initial publication. Pillars had a certain magical quality - a combination of riveting storytelling, larger than life characters, grand themes of religion, destiny, history, and morality, strong women, love, hate, redemption, and so on. Naturally, the question on my mind in purchasing World Without End was, since most sequels are bad, could this one possibly overcome the track record of sequels and deliver a reading experience similar to Pillars? Frankly, every sequel I've ever read for books I loved (case in point: Shogun) left me quite disappointed. So I was wary, though Ken Follett has provided me so many hours of reading pleasure over the years that I allowed myself to be hopeful.
Here's the bottom line. World Without End is a good book, and worth reading if you loved Pillars. It is not Pillars, but it's still a solid read. I will quickly net out the Pillars comparison for those who want to know how it stacks up. It has lots and lots of interesting history and "feel" for the time period, which I greatly enjoy. At the same time, World Without End does not have the same gravitas as Pillars had. Where Pillars had a handful of charasmatic characters who were archetypes of universal themes of the human condition and who were larger than life, World Without End has a seemingly endless procession of characters who are just life-sized. WWE has a secret as Pillars did; however, the secret is not a Terrible Secret on the grand scale of Pillars, just one of the many thousands of secrets that have transpired through the ages and been long forgotten. Where Pillars was about the grandeur and otherworldliness of building a cathedral, WWE concerns us with the utilitarian issue of constructing a bridge - more of an engineering problem than a transcendental challenge. I didn't care about the characters in WWE in the same way I cared about them in Pillars. That said, WWE is good storytelling. I have read ALL of Follett's books, and he spins a great yarn every time; no exception here. The enjoyment of escaping into another time and place is all here, just like in Pillars, though it's somehow less compelling. With Pillars I stayed up for three or four nights and missed a day or two of work, because I simply could not put the book down. This book requires more of a commitment, because it's not that hard to put down. When I finished Pillars I would've paid 10 times the cost of the book for another 100 pages; with WWE, by the time the book ended, I was done and ready to go back to other stuff.
One of the problems with having written the Best Book Ever is that, by definition, the next one won't be as good. That is the case here. But is it fair to expect the Best Book Ever to be superceded by the Even Better Best Book Ever? There is no sequel to Pillars, in the same way that you can't have a second first-love. There's only one first love; all the rest after that is fine-tuning and possbly recapturing bits and pieces of the initial thrill, but to expect the magic of your first fomance to repeat itself all over again is unrealistic and likely to lead to unnecessary disappointment. World Without End is a good four star book, and can be enjoyed on its own merit.
ADDENDUM: I, like some other reviewers here, found the sex a bit gratuitous. I'm no prude, but I do think it's OK to leave it to the imagination, or just assume young healthy people of the opposite sex will occasionally act like rabbits, without further elaboration each time.
Ken Follet is one of my favorite authors. His books stand above even the best books I've read. As an aspiring writer, I always feel inspired after reading a Follett novel and wish I could somehow capture the magic he has with the written word. It is hard to review a book like World Without End. It is incredibly long and also a sequel to Pillars of the Earth. World Without End covers a time span of about 40 years and the main characters remain the same. In "Pillars", the novel covered the lives of several characters. Fans of Pillars of the Earth will no doubt want to read the sequel. Those who have never read Follett should probably start with his World War II thrillers.
I never read historical novels, so I don't know how Follett compares. In describing 14th century England , he keeps it simple and assumes the reader can draw most of their own conclusions. The characters are fun and complex, yet nothing new. Follett's novels seem to all have variations on the same types of characters. The novel revolves around four characters: Merthin, the builder, Ralph, Merthin's brother, the amoral knight, Caris, the independent minded girl, and Gwenda, a poor, plainlooking girl. Each character is featured at different times, facing triumph and tragedy. Many, many other characters are woven throughout the story, but they come and go pretty easily. Around page 750, or 3/4ths through the book, Follett introduces the plague, and a lot of main characters are killed. The book changes course at this point and you have a normal novel-length conclusion where the four main characters are the star.
I'm a big Follett fan, so I knew I'd enjoy this book. But what keeps me reading page after page. This is a long book and requires a huge investment of time. It's not suspense. World Without End covers the entire lives of the characters, and there are many twists and turns, but none of the plot elements are so strong that they carry the entire book. It's not the characters. As I said before and as mentioned in other reviews, the characters in this book are really no different than Follett's other characters. I kept reading page after page because Follett powerfully portrays (and I'm assuming he has done his research for historical accuracy) the internal and external conflicts that existed in the 14th century. At that time, the church ruled everything, especially in Kingsbridge. They collected rents and taxes, they could charge women with being witches. Also, the citizens of the town believed the monks and nuns had direct lines to God. Only the monks could practice medicine, although their main answer to everything was bloodletting to rid the body of "evil spirits." This was obviously a time where everyone accepted their lot in life. So when Merthin and Caris question the authority of the monks, problems arise. Also in play was the class system. Ralph went into training to be a knight and had incredible power over his subjects, including Gwenda. He could kill men and rape women and face little consequences.
We live in an age where you can't be forgiven of sins by paying money to monks and you won't be cured of sickness by slicing open a blood vessel. So I was mesmerized to read about a people who had hopes and dreams just like I do yet lived in a society whose ideas were so primitive. The novel is a constant battle between the status quo and progress. In one passage, Follett writes about Caris's attempt to build a hospital using medical knowledge she discovered by working on patients. She is opposed by a monk who trained at Oxford by priests. Caris loses and Follett writes: There would be no separation of different categories of patient. There would be no face masks or hand washing in vinegar. Weak people would be made weaker by bleeding; starved people would be made thinner by purging; wounds wold be covered with poultices made of animal dung to encourage the body to produce pus. No one would care about cleanliness or fresh air." This constant conflict is what makes the novel so compelling.
As I finished the novel, I wondered what message, if any, I would take away. First, I was thoroughly entertained. Follett takes you into a new world. Second, the entire scope of a novel comments on the nature of God. Christianity has obviously advanced a lot since the 14th century, but the debate is still there. How much of what happens on earth does God control? Is there free will? If Follett were to ever write a third book in this series, I believe a perfect time frame would be the Protestant Reformation where the power of the Catholic church was finally questioned.
The novel is full of violence and lots of sex, which can be an enjoyable diversion or an annoying turn-off, depending on your point of view. Follett is a master with words, his prose his simple, humorous and grabs you and takes you into his world. I definitely recommend this book but think you would be wise to read his other thrillers before reading Pillars of the Earth or World Without End.
on November 8, 2008
I'm enjoying this book, and have almost finished it, but I have noticed two odd things while reading it.
The first odd thing is that Follett has apparently recycled all the major characters from "The Pillars of the Earth." Of course, they have different names, family origins, and circumstances, but they are still the same-old same-old. To wit, the duelling Cain and Abel brothers, with one brother incredibly good in all aspects, and the other brother incomprehensibly bad in all aspects. As I recall, in "The Pillars of the Earth" these were the children of John Builder. In the present work, they are Merthin and HIS brother. The main heroes, John Builder and the Lady Aliena, reappear here as Merthin and Caris. And so does the evil, repellent woman who is incredibly gifted in power politics, forced to tell her stupid male relatives what they must do in order to gain power.
The second area of concern will probably (like the first) not matter much to most readers: anachronism. Basically, this means "contradicting the time-frame of the story." If you are filming a tale about Ancient Greece, it is a major anachronism if the camera catches someone wearing a watch.
The problem here goes much deeper than extras with a Rolex. All of the major heroes of this allegedly medieval saga are deeply concerned with issues which belong to modern times, most particularly feminism. The problem here does not lie with feminism, or the attitude towards slavery, but with ANACHRONISM. A woman in the Middle Ages would hardly have obsessed over the choice between career and marriage, but the heroine of this novel does. She also obsesses about the unequal status of men and women -- a concern which had not even been verbalized in medieval times.
A counterexample would be Mary Renault, who did her level best to try to capture and present actual people from Ancient Greece, in her many excellent historical novels. She worked hard at it, to the point of trying to make her English prose echo, somehow, the sounds and rhythms of Attic Greek.
Ken Follett didn't even try to do something like this with regard to the Middle Ages in Europe. He gave us, instead, a bunch of 21st century people dressed up in medieval finery, and so, in my opinion, he fails as a writer of historical novels.
In fact, I suddenly suspect that the incredibly verbose Anne Rice is better at recreating ancient worlds than Ken Follett.
Nevertheless, I'll undoubtedly finish reading "World Without End." This review has concentrated on two negative points, but neglecting the positive aspects: Ken Follett can really tell a tale, and his characters really capture your heart and your imagination.
on November 29, 2007
I liked Pillars of the Earth, and have read it several times. It is fascinating and richly woven with detail and character. It highlights the struggle between good and evil, in society and in each one of us. Decent book, good story. In Pillars, there are hints that the author feels disdain for clergy, but it's not the main story line.
But Ai-yi-yi, where to start with World Without End? Some things are distracting -- nearly every cleric has a lover, and most of them are homosexual. It's just too obvious.
The sex in the book is monotonous. Two people kiss, then hands fondle breasts -- IMMEDIATELY. Every kiss in the book. Sheesh!
The common usage for the term "nunnery" in the middle ages meant "brothel", not "convent." Given the contempt of Christianity and virtue on display in this book, I can only imagine that the word "nunnery" was selected on purpose, and then repeated without variation for 1000 pages. World Without End, indeed!
Count how many times the transition "After a while, " is used. Distracting -- poor editing.
For the most part, the book was engaging, but not compelling. There were interesting sections on the engineering of structures -- that was really the best part of the book.
The love affairs of Caris and Merthin were amazingly and needlessly complicated. **SPOILER ALERT** They meet and find one another fascinating. They fall in love. Will she marry him? No, she doesn't want to give up her dreams. She aborts his baby. Years pass, they are still in love. Will she marry him? No, she wants to be a doctor. Will she marry him? No, she stands accused of witchcraft. Now she takes refuge in the church, begins her medical learning in earnest. He loves her still. He's terribly unhappy. He leaves town, travels Europe, learns a lot about architecture and engineering, marries, has a baby. Caris is heartbroken on hearing the news. She becomes lovers with another nun. The two nuns travel to France to try to persuade a bishop to DO THE RIGHT THING with regard to their town. But wait! There's hope! Here comes the plague! She becomes an even better doctor, her nun lover dies; he contracts plague and survives, but his wife dies. Reunion! Will she marry him? No way, she just can't give up her work. He says THIS IS THE LAST TIME I'M GOING TO ASK YOU TO MARRY ME. No, she won't. Desolate, he becomes lovers with his brother's wife (oh, yes! it's true). The plague comes back. In the end, boy gets girl, middle aged though they are. This, along with corrupt clergymen and -women, deserving peasants, violent gentry, a gruesome execution, 50 incidents of breast-fondling, and a secret buried in the ground comprises the plot. **SPOILER END**
It was tiresome and tedious. The engineering sections were interesting. The medicine was engaging. The love story was silly. The plot twists were predictable. The pettiness was eye-rolling. There was not much loyalty, piety, honor, or faith on display.
I'm a booky sort of person. Skip this one, unless you're a Ken Follett junkie or love tantalizing glimpses of the homosexual clergy. Go reread Pillars.