Format: Kindle (borrowed from Library)
Narrated By: NA
Original Publication Year: 2002
Genre(s): Historical Fiction
Series: The Pillars of the Earth #1
This is a very well known book (turned into a mini-series) about the trials and tribulations involved with building a Cathedral in the twelfth century. It focuses on a number of characters whose perspective the reader alternately inhabits: Tom Builder is a Master builder with a dream of building a Cathedral some day, Prior Phillip is the God-loving and practical Monk who hires Tom to build a cathedral, Aliena is daughter of a local Earl, much sought after but strong-willed and cleverer than most women of the time are supposed to be, Jack Jackson is Tom’s very clever step-son who follows in Tom’s footsteps, and William Hamliegh is the ultra-evil but not very smart nemesis of all. There are a number of other significant characters but the above are those to whose head we are allowed access.
My impression of this book is that it is a King among historical novels. People LOVE this book. Average rating on Goodreads: 4.24 – one of the highest I’ve seen – and that’s with over 240,000 ratings. It’s not surprising then that my expectations were rather high. It’s also not surprising that it didn’t quite live up to them.
It was a highly enjoyable and addictive read. During one stretch of four days traveling for work I devoured almost two-thirds of the book. It was easy to sit and get lost in it. It wouldn’t be too far off to call it a medieval soap opera, chock full of political, personal, religious and relationship drama. But it’s not fair to write it off so lightly. While it is perhaps a tad overly dramatized, I did feel immersed into medieval life particularly the dangers that people faced. Starvation was a reality for many and there were no real laws protecting common folk from tyranny. If the Earl who happened to control your village was just and responsible, you had some hope of a hardworking but peaceful life but if you were dealt an immoral and evil Earl, life could be violent and short-lived. The moral I took from this story? Thank your lucky stars that you do not live in the Middle Ages.
I also enjoyed the characters, which represent a cross section of good versus evil. The author doesn’t delve too deeply into the characters but he provides them with enough complexity to stay interesting. The “good” characters are particularly interesting because they are not allowed to be wholly good and some of the flaws have rather large consequences (like Tom Builder ignoring his son Alfred’s weak and bullying nature). The evil characters are more black and white which is disappointing. Follet seems to be positing that nobody is perfect but if your soul is basically good and moral, good things will come to you in the end.
Another real selling point for this book is that there is something here for everyone: romance, adventure, political intrigue, mystery, family drama. I feel like Follet did a good job of weaving the narrative into actual historical events. It’s an era of English history that I was pretty fuzzy about and the novel gave a strong flavor of the time and major events.
So with all these positive thoughts about the book why did it not meet expectations? Mostly because it followed a very obvious pattern with little variation and did so for just a little too long. Basically the “good” people would achieve something great or things would start to look all rainbows and puppies for them and then the “bad” people would come in and thwart everything and all would look lost. Repeat ad nauseum. The story at its basic level was very simplistic which in and of itself isn’t necessarily bad but it carried on far too long and I got a little bored and disengaged in the final third. I also didn’t particularly love or become attached to any of the characters which I think was because I felt I didn’t get to know any of them too deeply.
For me this was a solid and very readable historical novel. Framing the novel around the building of a cathedral was a particularly brilliant idea and provided it with an epic feel. 3.5 stars.