Title: The Pillars of the Earth
Author: Ken Follett
Release Date: November 14, 2007
Publisher: NAL Trade
Genre: Historical Fiction
Source: Personal Copy
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
It’s the 12th century in England, and Tom Builder is desperately looking for work. His dream has always been to build a cathedral, but no one seems to be hiring for even the most basic of building projects, and he doesn’t know how he will feed his family.
Meanwhile, Prior Philip, a monk, is finding himself swept up in England’s politics as he fights for the decaying Kingsbridge priory. He wants to build a cathedral at Kingsbridge, but the political situation, coupled with scheming lords and bishops, threatens to stand in his way to stop both he and Tom from achieving their dreams.
The Pillars of the Earth is a modern classic, so people were surprised when I admitted that I hadn’t yet read it. There were multiple reasons - too high expectations, the length - but with the new miniseries and the fact that I have been much more eager to read long books as of late, I decided to pick it up. I was at once impressed by the historical details and intricacy of the plot as I slowly fell in love with the characters over the course of the book.
One of the main strengths of The Pillars of the Earth is its characters. Though they can be sorted very roughly into the categories “characters you root for” and “characters you want to stab”, these are three dimensional and realistic people that come alive on every page. The characters you love have flaws that are difficult to overcome, such as Tom’s blindness about his son, Alfred. Likewise, the most despicable characters still have the occasional redeeming qualities; Follett does not stoop to caricatures in his novel.
Follett isn’t afraid to write strong, capable women, despite the limitations of the time period. Aliena, Ellen, and Regan are all smart and shrewd, and they control the novel’s plot in many ways. Aliena was probably my favorite character of the entire book - I loved how she cared for her brother, though he didn’t necessarily deserve it, and how she continually saved herself and those around her from poverty and starvation. She also refused to let herself become a victim, regardless of circumstances.
The main storyline of the novel is the building of a cathedral in Kingsbridge, and the difficulties that come with it. From political maneuvering and war to fires and the collapse of buildings, Tom and Philip must face much adversity. Having two very powerful enemies doesn’t make the situation any easier for them. The book is filled with the details of building a cathedral, from architecture to quarrying stone, which makes the novel completely fascinating. If you aren’t a fan of details such as this, the book might seem interminable, but in this case, I absolutely loved it.
I also appreciated how seamlessly Follett wove in the history of the time period into his story. Philip is required to scheme and plot in order to build his cathedral, and I loved how smart he was in outwitting his opponents. At the same time, though, he is not always victorious. I was afraid I’d get tired of the constant twists and turns, overcoming one obstacle just to be faced with another, even more insurmountable, but Follett did an exceptional job keeping the book fresh and interesting.
To sum up, Pillars of the Earth really was an exceptional historical novel. I was continually impressed by the depth of the characters, and Follett managed to keep me interested for the entire novel, which is really saying something considering the length. I’m really looking forward to reading the sequel, World Without End, and I’ll be watching the miniseries soon.