The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follet

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Ken Follett is known worldwide as the master of split-second suspense, but his most beloved and bestselling book tells the magnificent tale of a twelfth-century monk driven to do the seemingly impossible: build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.

Everything readers expect from Follett is here: intrigue, fast-paced action, and passionate romance. But what makes The Pillars of the Earth extraordinary is the time—the twelfth century; the place—feudal England; and the subject—the building of a glorious cathedral. Follett has re-created the crude, flamboyant England of the Middle Ages in every detail. The vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries become a familiar landscape. Against this richly imagined and intricately interwoven backdrop, filled with the ravages of war and the rhythms of daily life, the master storyteller draws the reader irresistibly into the intertwined lives of his characters—into their dreams, their labors, and their loves: Tom, the master builder; Aliena, the ravishingly beautiful noblewoman; Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge; Jack, the artist in stone; and Ellen, the woman of the forest who casts a terrifying curse. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, each character is brought vividly to life.

The building of the cathedral, with the almost eerie artistry of the unschooled stonemasons, is the center of the drama. Around the site of the construction, Follett weaves a story of betrayal, revenge, and love, which begins with the public hanging of an innocent man and ends with the humiliation of a king.

At once a sensuous and endearing love story and an epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age, The Pillars of the Earth is without a doubt Ken Follett’s masterpiece.


I was really excited to read this, and I’m not sure why (it might have something to do with the sequel sitting on the shelf and staring at me for years before I ever laid hands on the original) and now that it’s behind me, I’m lukewarm about the whole experience.

Ken Follet’s medieval epic takes place in twelfth century England during the Anarchy, starting with the death of king Henry I and the subsequent war over the succession and up through the murder of Thomas Becket the Archbishop of Canterbury. Lots of ground to cover. Amid that terrain is Follet’s story of the construction of a cathedral, with various themes such as obsession, rivalry, corruption, faith, love, and all the pillaging, conniving and backstabbing you can handle.

In a twist, I’ll give the good stuff first. I liked Prior Philip. In fact, Philip was the only character consistently doing something interesting. Granted, Ellen was one tough cookie and Jack was almost as interesting, but Philip’s determination to see Kingsbridge Cathedral completed was what saved this thing for me.

Insofar as it could be saved, that is. At nearly a thousand pages long, you would think either the whole thing should be a masterpiece or an editor should be fired. Maybe I won’t go quite that far, but they definitely need a stern talking-to. Follet’s writing wasn’t up to task. The research was lacking. The characters were one-dimensional. The plot was predictable. In the hands of someone familiar with the genre, this could have been great, but Follet is primarily a suspense writer, which is a different ball game. I wanted to be swept up and carried away, but I spent much of the time bored to distraction. It was just so…bland. The good people and the bad people had the usual motives (the good to be stalwart, courageous and faithful; the bad to be self-serving, ruthless and bloodthirsty) and events stayed true to those motives. The good people toiled hard to noble ends, the bad people thwarted them on occasion but the good toiled on, and so on and so on. Lather, rinse, repeat.

What I found most insufferable was villain William Hamleigh. His whining, sulking and bellyaching were enough to get on my nerves, and his constant complaint about people who didn’t fear him as he saw proper finished the job. Then we just had to go one step further into the pillaging territory, in which young master William took great enjoyment out of raping and torturing at will. All right. I get the picture. This guy is a BAD GUY. In nearly one thousand pages, I literally lost count of the rape scenes and wanted to drive a wooden stake through the book when I realized there were enough for me to lose count. Graphic, gratuitous shock factor that doesn’t make me despise William as much as it makes me want to backhand both author and editor. I repeat, I GET THE PICTURE. MOVE ON.

In the spirit of moving on, I’m going to wrap this up. There’s much more to nitpick about, and in trying to find some redeeming factor I can only fall back on Prior Philip. The rest is too formulaic, with some tedium and overkill thrown in for good measure, and the ending was so contrived it’s barely worth the time and trouble. I saw it through because I was too stubborn to give up…

…and because I finally want that sequel to stop staring at me from the shelf…

About RisingPhoenix761

Hello! Glad to meet you! Long story short, I've got a young heart with an old soul, I love to think about stuff, and occasionally share what I think about. Stick around, if you like!
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