Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follet is an ambitious fictional novel that spans the course of almost a person’s lifetime when all is said and done. In fact, I was shocked to learn that this was only the first book in a trilogy! Who’d knew building a cathedral was so much work? Well, if you had all the odds stacked against you, you’d know. And that folks, is exactly what this humongous of a novel is all about. At first, I really didn’t want to read this. At almost 1000 pages, do I really want to read about the building and construction of a church cathedral? But the more I thought about it, there’s probably much more to it than that! I’ve read a novel from the author a while ago and remembered he was very good at what he does and so I’ve decided to give it a try. I knew it was going to be a huge commitment with the size of the novel and whatnot but I can truly say that it was worth it. Finishing the book in just a week’s time is definite proof of that!
As a political church/court intrigue book, I’d have to say it satisfied me pretty well. I wanted to read about evil scheming behind closed doors and plots on how the characters in the story can outdo one another. At its core, I guess you can say that this is a good vs. evil story. It starts with the want to build a new cathedral but quickly spirals into a plot thick with treachery, jealousy and anger to prevent that from happening. From there, the story will take you through a roller coaster of emotions ranging from romance, anger, sadness, happiness, triumph and even solemn thoughtfulness. Although there are a good 6-8 characters to keep track of, I couldn’t really think of at any point where I was lost and confused. At 1000 pages, the story flows very nicely from page to page and chapter to chapter all the way till the end. Because of the timeline, the story jumps ahead at several plotlines throughout the book. I think the author made a good decision in choosing these jump points. If not, the book could easily have been an additional 200-300 pages if not more!
Characters in Pillars of the Earth are your standard affair, if a bit predictable. What I mean is that characters are either good or bad, hardly any grey areas. However, they do have the occasionally need to make very hard decisions because of the hard times they are living in and I enjoy those scenarios because it gives you a taste of the reality that these people are living in. A bad harvest year can cause famine, outlaws can kill and rob you without any hesitation if you seem weak and vulnerable, a rich merchant can go from rich to penniless in matter of months and a person could be out of work without any means to support their families are just some of the examples. One important thing I want to commend the author for is that although the story can be very depressing at times, he doesn’t make the characters brood in self-loathing for too long.
Set in the medieval period of 1100 or so, the author paints a vivid picture of the scenery for us. You’ll have everything from knights and kings to poorly patched houses and churches, horses clobbering up the streets, market fairs, to housemaids of the rich and privileged. Fairly standard stuff you’d read about elsewhere during this time period but the author doesn’t nag and bore you with the intricate details. The novel is geared more towards the interactions and dialogue between the various characters and as well what they are thinking of at the moment. It gives us readers the chance to really get to know the characters and I’ve always loved when an author goes through this in details. Due to the era they are living in, there will be many acts of violence that will go unpunished and even a couple of rape/sexual scenes that the author goes a bit into detail with. Although I don’t really have any preference on whether these scenes are necessary or not, I was just a tad bit shocked with how the author chose to describe the actual scene. If you’re really squeamish about these types of things, it’s very easy to just skip over them and continue with the story. I don’t think these few scenes should prevent someone from enjoy the novel. Again, if you read other dark historical fiction novels set in this period, you’re bound to find similar scenes because that’s just how it was back then.
Pillars of the Earth can definitely be intimidating for a lot of readers just on sheer size alone. However, the story itself is never hard to understand nor does at any point I could remember did it get confusing. I was shocked at how fast I read through the book. That’s saying something because it’s not like the author leaves many cliffhangers at the end of sections or chapters. You’ll just want to naturally plow on and see what happens next. Will there be progress to the building of the cathedral or will there be yet another setback? Will the characters implode due to the sheer situation that they are in or will they find clever ways around the problem yet again? Will evil truly conquer over the righteous? I’ll conclude by saying that if anything, reading Pillars of the Earth now makes me curious about how horsebread tastes like! Searching online for such recipes I’ve discovered that I’m not the only one! In all seriousness though, this book was an absolute beast but I’m glad to have read it. With that being said though, I’m not sure when or even if I’ll read the two other novels. I have a feeling that it will more or less contain a similar theme as the first book here.