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The Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

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Author: Ken Follett / Format: Paperback / Date of publication: 20 August 2010 / Genre: Historical Fiction / Publisher: Pan Macmillan / Title: The Pillars of the Earth / ISBN 13: 9780330534925 / ISBN 10: 0330534925 / Alternative EAN: 9780330450133

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    9 Reviews
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      12.08.2013 17:18
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      Epic historical tale of love, betrayal & revenge

      If you are a fan of historical fiction - this is the tome for you..

      A whopping 1000+ pages set in twelfth century England, in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. The plot revolves around the building of Kingsbridge cathedral and the many characters whose lives are intertwined with the ambitious new building. The main protagonist is Prior Phillip, a local monk who's character, unlike others, cannot be faulted. It is Prior Phillip's dream to make the town of Kingsbridge great. This of course cannot be done without encountering many challenges including the most obvious; religion and politics.

      The opening paragraph immediately sets the scene of how brutal the middle ages could be for families. The characters become your friends and foes and are so well written that you will cry for them, laugh with them and hate with them. It's teeming with goodies, baddies and their supporting characters.

      The Pillars of the Earth is an epic tale of love, betrayal, revenge and politics with many sub plots interwoven. Follet's writing truly makes you feel like you have stepped into medieval times, you can almost smell the scenes and will feel completely immersed in the middle ages.

      Do not be put off by the size/length of this book, as I neared the end I actually had to savour the last paragraphs as I didn't want it to end. I was delighted to hear there was a follow up novel set in later times with links to this first novel (World Without End). If you are a historical fiction fan I urge you to read this book, you won't regret it.

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        25.02.2013 00:28
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        Definitely a page-turner - couldn't put it down!

        I first came across this book via a free download from Starbucks and was reading it from my iBooks on the iPhone.
        I didn't know what it was about and hadn't read any synopsis on it but after the first chapter I was hooked!
        I never thought I'd enjoy a book revolving around religion, politics and history (especially the Middle Ages) but this is difference. The author keeps you in suspense by weaving a fascinating and adventurous story throughout.

        The story is basically about a quest to build a cathedral - a vision shared and passed on between the characters. It might not sound very interesting based on that but its the story of how the dreams of each and every person affects others - in good ways and bad.

        There are themes of violence, maliciousness, sadness, despair, loss and betrayal as well as faith, loyalty, strength, hope, devotion, joy and of course... love. Everything that defines the lines between good and evil... man and God. The author keeps the story quite down to earth and believable - there are no miracles or extravagance and this is shown particularly through the main character 'Philip of Gwynedd'.

        There are a lot of twists and turns throughout which will keep you on edge... when things seem to take a turning point and seem to be going well, there is another disaster and obstacle to overcome. You feel for the characters. You hate the ones who are purely evil, and you wish and hope the ones who deserve good finally DO win in the end. I'm glad to say that the ending is a good one and I'm really happy that it turned out the way it did. Not trying to spoil it for anyone, but the ending is awesome and defines the turn of the century and shift of power.
        I also like the way it was written in that the story is told and continued on from different characters perspectives.

        Like all good books, it isn't perfect. Some things to critique... some of the language used raised doubt as to whether it existed in the Middle Ages, the sexual descriptions were quite detailed and embarrassing to read, toward the ending the author repeats what the reader already knows by using the characters to reflect on what had happened and I think I also spotted a few typos too - a pet peeve of mine!

        In conclusion I am so impressed with the story that I am going to buy the hard cover too. Also, I watched the TV series based on this book and its rubbish - doesn't do it justice.

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        07.07.2011 15:02
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        A rich, sweeping, brilliant historical novel!

        Last year, I was looking to buy a selection of top quality books. I'm a keen reader, but haven't made much time for it of late, so wanted a decent selection of real quality that I could enjoy. One of the sources I consulted was the BBC's read, looking at Britain's favourite books. I'd read a few of those in the list, and there were many I'd heard of but not read (several recognised classics, etc.). However my eye was caught by one in particular which was exceptionally well though of, but that I hadn't heard of at all, and hadn't even heard of the author. This was "The Pillars of the Earth" by Ken Follett, and I bought it on a whim.

        The book was written in 1989 after a tough wrangle between Follett and his publishers (as I understand he was better known for writing espionage/action books, and this was a historical epic).

        The book is set in the 1100's in England, beginning with a short prologue set in 1123, and then subsequently divided into 6 distinct sections, following the major characters at key points in their lives:

        Part 1: 1135 - 1136
        Part 2: 1136 - 1137
        Part 3:1140 - 1142
        Part 4: 1142 - 1145
        Part 5: 1152 - 1155
        Part 6: 1170 - 1174

        First of all, this is a huge book; over 1,000 pages, and can seem heavy going at times. The story is in some ways deeply personal, following the intertwined lives of many major characters over the course of over 50 years. In other ways it is grander and more sweeping - the story is set against the backdrop of the building of a cathedral, and paints a full picture of what life was like in England during the 1100's.

        At this point, it is worth mentioning possibly the only negative point I have. Ken Follett is clearly very enthusiastic about architecture, structural engineering, and the building of the cathedral, and he does dwell on the technical details of this for paragraphs at a time during the story. I didn't mind this too much at first, but it can become a little tiresome. It is well worth sticking with the story through these sections though, as they are only minor lulls.

        One of the elements which really stands out in this book is the characterisation, which is exceptional. Each character, even ones more minor and secondary to the plot, is painted in great detail. This is predominantly achieved through looking at the story through the eyes of many characters, so we get to experience their emotions and understand their motivations first hand, rather than from a third person perspective.

        Follett's writing style is really accessible, with rich description in quite simple prose. The good use of suspense and plot twists keep you turning effortlessly through the mass of pages, eagerly tracking the interdependent lives of so many people.

        This book does contain a few passages which could be troubling to read, but they definitely take their place well within the narrative. There are elements of the story which are arrestingly brutal and depraved, but this never seems to be done in a gratuitous way. Rather it seems like a matter-of-fact reflection of life in those times, where floggings, murders, and rapes were the horrible reality.

        I thoroughly enjoyed reading "The Pillars of the Earth"; it is a rich and compelling story, driven by a wide selection of well-developed characters, which paints a believable and brilliant picture of a key period in the history of England.

        This is by no means an exhaustive review, it's simply designed to give an idea of the nature of the story, my basic feelings about the book, and a hearty recommendation for you to read it if you have not done so already!

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          08.06.2011 13:10
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          An intriguing, medieval steeped tale of human suffering and human creativity.

          I was looking for a book to spend a waterstones xmas voucher on, and I had just finished reading The white Queen by Philippa Gregory. I have a keen interest in all things historical anyway, especially early history such as medieval.

          So my eye rested upon Ken Follet's epic novel, which by the way, has a really effective front cover, which is what drew me in. I didn't know it was a medieval themed novel until I read the blurb, so the front cover did its job. When I found this out I took the plunge and bought it.

          I say took the plunge because the size of the book made it slightly daunting - its so thick! This is good though because it feels like your reading something that carries a lot of weight, metaphorically and literally.

          The plot centres around the character Tom Builder and his family for much of the novel as he tries to make a living as a master builder - creating town houses and churches. His dream is to build a cathedral and that brings in to view the priory of Kingsbridge, the church of which mysteriously burns down one night. Then begins the tale of the rebuild and all the dark plotting by friend and foe alike to either bring the project to its knees or to make it the best cathedral in England.

          The plot is truly mesmerising that has so many in and outs, twists and cliff hangers, you don't know what's going to happen from chapter to chapter! Just as you think things couldn't get any worse - they do. Just as it looks like the cathedral will never be built, something happens at court (the king gets usurped for example) to kickstart it again.

          The main characters in the book are fully rounded individuals that, all seem to come together and link with each other in the end, which is very cleverly written by Follett. You also get a tangible sense of tension between the forces of good and evil that must have been very real and accurate in the medieval era itself.

          If you like a novel that you can get lost in, this is for you. I picked it first and foremost because of the historical theme, but anyone who likes a great story and a twisting, adventurous plot, this will appeal to you too.

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          21.07.2009 14:59
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          Well worth getting stuck into

          This was bought for me by a friend who knew of my love for history and I'm glad they did as I loved it.

          Written by Ken Follett in 1989, this hugely successful book is ostensibly about the building of a cathedral and is set during the period of lawlessness that followed the death of Henry I. However, as crucial as it is to the plot this is all a backdrop, in front of which we have a huge cast of characters that live out their entire lives over the course of the 1000+ pages.

          Yes, this is a huge novel that takes place over decades but it never feels like it is dragging, largely due to Follett's writing style, which is very simple and unpretentious and thus the book is very easy to read. I do not mean to imply that it is poorly written, as it is full of lovely description and excellent turns of phrase. There are other novels of comparable length that become tedious due to their author's pretentious literary attempts (see the tedium that is A Suitable Boy by Vikram Seth) but this manages to rarely get bogged down.

          In large part the characters feel quite authentic and their various motivations and aspirations tend to ring true, which helps you to care about their lives, which we see in great detail. This novel is very much concerned with families and relationships and, with its themes of true love thwarted and family tragedies, often feels like the Catherine Cookson genre of novels that middle aged women and adolescent girls enjoy reading. But only at times and usually it greatly surpases this genre's cliches.

          Some of the characters do feel uncomfortably modern, though I can appreciate how difficult it is to get inside the medieval mind (for all its similarities to modern culture). The main characters, if you can call them that, Jack and Aliena, seem at times to be out of an American TV series, fighting for what they believe in and taking on the authorities and so on and it can be a bit jarring. However, I think Follett was using these characters to show the changes that were occuring at large within the society at the time so we cannot blame him too much for his inevitable modernisations.

          Religion in this novel is a huge feature of everyday life, in fact is bound up and a part of everyday life in a way that it is hard now (for most of us) to understand and I think he deals with this very well.

          The parts on architecture were at times difficult to follow but they are written with such obvious enthusiasm and I enjoyed them immensely. Even more than this, I will genuinely never look at a church in the same way again. Not many novels, not even supposedly 'literary' ones, have changed my perception like that.

          This is a very enjoyable novel that wizzes by at 100mph and one I would recommend to anyone. Its popularity is surely sign of its wide appeal and if you can stomach 1000 pages then you'll definately enjoy this.

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          04.05.2009 23:15
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          An interesting look at the twelfth century

          After reading several recommendations of "The Pillars of the Earth" I thought that I would pick it up when I saw it in the library recently. All I knew about it was that it was about the building of a cathedral in twelfth-century England and that it was long. Having never read Ken Follett before I had no preconceptions about his writing style and didn't know what to expect.

          This book was written in 1989 and went on to become Follett's best-selling work. It was listed no. 33 out of 200 books in the BBC's "Big Read" in 2003, which was a survey looking for the nation's most popular books.

          The book begins with a short prologue about a hanging in 1123 - obviously this scene has significance but we don't know why until later in the book.
          The book is then divided into six parts, each spanning a specific amount of time:

          Part One - 1135 - 1136
          Part Two - 1136 - 1137
          Part Three -1140 - 1142
          Part Four - 1142 - 1145
          Part Five - 1152 - 1155
          Part Six - 1170 - 1174

          The gaps in time become progressively larger in the last two parts with fifteen years between parts five and six. This feels a bit rushed as the first four parts are kept quite close together.

          The book follows several characters throughout this time span, showing how their lives change with the changing rulers of England. The politics of the time are wild and England is practically lawless after the death of Henry I without an heir.

          This leads to a long and bitter civil war between Maud (Henry I's daughter - also known as Matilda) and Stephen (his nephew). This period of time (1135 - 1154) is actually known as The Anarchy. I had actually heard of the civil war between Matilda and Stephen before so was confused for a while about who Maud was!

          The characters that we follow are Prior Philip - an ambitious but likeable monk who is trying to build the new cathedral for his monastery; Tom builder - an out of work stone mason whose dream is to build a cathedral; Ellen - a mysterious outlaw woman with a grudge against the Church; Ellen's son Jack - a talented young man who is hopelessly in love with an older woman; Aliena - daughter of an Earl who is convicted of treason and loses her standing in society and Richard, Aliena's brother who is determined to win his father's Earldom back.

          We also follow the ebbs and flows of the villains of the piece such as Bishop Waleran, Prior Philip's bitter enemy and William Hamleigh, the oppressive Earl who ruins the countryside through rape and plunder - he has the Earldom previously belonging to Aliena and Richard's father.

          The story is engaging as there are so many different characters and events going on at so many different levels. I felt that this book gave a clear and interesting view of the long and bloody civil war between Maud and Stephen. It really gave an accurate view of the results of civil war on the feudal twelfth century society.

          Where this book falls down is the unbelievability of some plot aspects - Prior Philip always manages to outsmart his enemies just in the nick of time; Aliena always manages to survive and is an independent woman; All of the main characters have surprisingly long life-spans as well for twelfth century people.

          William Hamleigh is the nasty villain of the story and commits vile acts throughout the book. However, by about halfway through the book he felt a bit like a pantomime villain - he just kept coming back! His motivations got a bit dull and repetitive - we know that he hates/loves Aliena, we don't need to be told countless times.

          There was a lot in the book about architecture (obviously as they are building a cathedral somewhere in the middle of all the drama), which could get a bit dull if you're not interested in it. I tended to skip these parts as they weren't of much interest to me.

          The other irritating aspect of this book was the amount of time dedicated to the love story. I didn't pick up this book to read a romance but unfortunately that was what I got in large doses - it got a bit sickly to be honest.

          However, this was still a compulsive read and it helped explain to me a period of history that I was a bit fuzzy about. We learn how King Henry II comes to the throne and also about his argument with Thomas Becket. I thought that the addition of the death of Thomas Becket was inspired as it kept me reading towards the end.

          The scene where we find out about the significance of the hanging in the prologue felt like somewhat of an anti-climax. We are given large hints about it throughout the plot and it just didn't feel very significant after the long build-up.

          Reading back through this review I feel that I've been a bit negative about what is actually quite a good book but these were just the niggles I had about the plot.

          Overall I thought this was quite compulsive reading as you wanted to know what would happen next. Despite the more irritating parts of the plot it was enjoyable and did give a good depiction of twelfth century England in some respects.

          Overall I would recommend this for the historical detail about the civil war between Maud and Stephen and the argument between Henry II and Thomas Becket which led to Thomas' martyrdom and the curbing of Henry's powers by the Church.

          If the silly plot details and romance will annoy you maybe it's not for you but it is an engaging read despite this.

          Also posted on ciao.co.uk.

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            26.01.2009 14:28

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            Educational Novel suitable for all ages in my opinion

            My review won't compare to the two other Brill ones on here but I just thought I'd add my tuppence worth.

            Normally, I read crime novels and forensic type stuff as i find it really interesting although, because I know a bit about medicine, any innacuracies really annoy me and spoil the story.

            I only read this book because it was given to me for my Birthday, I absolutely loved it.

            The attention to detail is just superb, the few parts that I didn't understand (some of the architectural terms) I googled and they were perfect, absolutely spot on.

            There were so many intricately woven plotlines, I found it hard to put down at times. There were no occasions when something bizarre happened just so the author could knit together the different plots and characters, it simply flowed right from start to finish.

            The frustrations of Tom were so easily transferable into today's world, someone who really know what he is doing but using "non-conventional" means, getting smothered by the establishment who find, to their expense that the loudest mouth isn't always the right one.

            I have gone back and read several other Ken Folletts, not least "A place called freedom" which is just as well researched. These novels are enormously valuable from a historical point of view as they make learning about the hardships of the times a lot more interesting than simply reading a text book.

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            25.01.2009 17:05
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            Great Read For The Long Haul

            With work and life getting in the way, i usualy don't have time to read that many fictional books, but when i decided that i would read this epic historical novel i am glad. This is probably my favourite book of all time, although i am currently reading the 'sequel' to this and i am enjoying it thoroughly.

            The book begins with a brief part about a hanging before the beginning of the main book that sets the context of the book and comes back into the story later on. The books then continues to describe the plight of a small family trying to make ends meet in an england where the peasant is considered worthless.

            The family is cast out of a city, and they set off for another building site, where the father figure in the group looks for work as a carpenter. They have a little bit of trouble in the woods, although the nature of which i can't reveal, as that would ruin it, but eventually when the group leaves, they enter Kingsbridge in search of work. That is essentially the beginning of the book and where i will leave it in fear of giving away too much of thsi great story that will encapsulate anyone for hours on end.

            The book goes through various stages of the main characters lives, and we see children grow and become adults, whilst adults become older and frail, making it more of a biography than short fictional story. You become caught in every aspect of their lives and their trials and tribulations are presented so well by Ken Follett that you will want to continue on until the end.

            This is as such my favourite book that i have ever read and i am sure that it will come up high on your top ten anyday, so i would recommend that anyone who wants a great read that they can get stuck ionto should try this. But if you only want a quick read on the train then don't bring this, as it is more of a long-term novel than a pick up and read book, so a bit of patience and time is necessary to enjoy this to the full.

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            24.07.2008 20:34
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            Ken Follett's epic historical novel set against the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral (1989).

            Ken Follett's epic historical novel was a departure from my usual reading habits for two primary reasons; firstly that it was a historical novel, and secondly that it was a book of longer than two hundred or so pages. This is a monumental work, the scope of which entirely justifies its length as Follett paints a vivid, detailed picture of life in a twelfth century English town with a core cast of characters who are remarkable in their ordinariness.

            The briefest summary of 'The Pillars of the Earth' would state that it's about the building of a cathedral, but really this is only the central core around which the events and life stories circle at various distances. The construction of Kingsbridge Cathedral is certainly an integral part of the book, and Follett permits his personal enthusiasm for gothic architecture to take over at points through the voices of his characters. While this may cause some readers to skip ahead in boredom, the awe and reverence with which the designs are treated is guaranteed to have a lasting effect on anyone with a passing interest in Medieval history or historical buildings, at the very least causing the reader to stop and look for a little longer in churches and abbeys.

            Beyond the practical construction of the cathedral, itself plagued with drama, this is a novel of life, death, war, treachery, politics, love and belief, and Follett's division of the ungainly 1,000 pages into six parts, multiple chapters and further sub-chapters is both handy and an effective narrative method. Readers may be a little thrown off at first by the shifting focus as each group of characters is followed over the course of the years, and by the seemingly restless choice of protagonist. The first part of the novel centres on Tom, an out-of-work builder who wanders the country desperately in a time of recession, intent on feeding his starving family and seeing them through the winter. At some point, the story begins to focus more on Prior Philip's devout and pragmatic accession to ruler of Kingsbridge, and finally the young and brilliant Jack takes over with his innocent love for Aliena and drive to learn the truth about his father's death that forms the real overarching thread of the novel.

            Follett's characters and locations are all fleshed out in great detail, creating a real sense of an organic community of fictional characters in a fictional town sandwiched between real historical events. Even the token bad guys in the form of the genuinely despicable William Hamleigh and his corrupt adviser Bishop Waleran avoid seeming too much like stereotypes to spoil the atmosphere, their motives always being explained in a level of detail that only makes them easier to hate. As a historical novel, no concession is made towards fantasy beyond a historically accurate acceptance of curses and religion by the more superstitious characters that are nevertheless dismissed by the more pragmatic individuals such as Jack in particular, and this means that Tolkien fans approaching the novel for its length and historical setting may be disappointed at the lack of spell-casting and flying monsters. The plot is still subject to tasteful outbursts of violence in the form of battles, rapes and executions; it's just that there's much more about men and women going about their everyday lives, which is fascinating in itself.

            Written over a longer period than it even takes to read the damn thing, Follett's masterpiece can seem like a bit of a chore at times, though its length is ultimately satisfying, and avoids the need to divide it into further books that would just be annoying. My main issue was one of consistency and balance, as each of the six parts occurs in a slightly different period of the characters' lives, but some of the leaps are too drastic. The sixth part in particular feels somewhat tagged-on and rushed, as twenty years flash past with little explanation outside of later back-references, and it seems that Follett wanted to age the characters to a convenient degree without the hassle of having to chronicle the further adventures of their humdrum lives, an attitude in conflict with the drawn-out style of the first five parts.

            This gripe aside, the narrative is otherwise perfectly plotted, allowing the reader to accompany characters through their lives, from birth to death in some instances, and it's clear that Follett's reputation granted him a fair degree of freedom in writing the book he wanted, rather than one demanded by the publishers (the book that would ultimately become his biggest selling and most popularly acclaimed). Many of the events are delightfully mundane, while others are inspiring or horrific in their scope, and the author demonstrates a strong grasp of character psychology without crossing over into first-person indulgence.

            This read was certainly a rewarding experience, not least in that I can never look at a cathedral in the same way again (and I'm probably accurate in guessing that I hang around ruins more than the average person). I was a little scared to realise that I'm already considering re-reading it in the future, but even attempting to tackle the recent, similarly intimidating sequel 'World Without End' would require a greater degree of motivation than I'm capable of right now.

            Not exactly a light summer read, but a perfect book in which to absorb yourself over a long, harsh, unemployed winter, this was voted #33 by whoever exactly was responsible for the BBC's Big Read.

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          • Product Details

            The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, a devout and resourceful monk driven to build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has known; of Tom, the mason who becomes his architect - a man divided in his soul; of the beautiful, elusive Lady Aliena, haunted by a secret shame; and of a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state, and brother against brother. A spellbinding epic tale of ambition, anarchy, and absolute power set against the sprawling medieval canvas of twelfth-century England, this is Ken Follett's historical masterpiece. 'Enormous and brilliant ...this mammoth tale seems to touch all human emotion - love and hate, loyalty and treachery, hope and despair. This is truly a novel to get lost in' - Cosmopolitan. 'A historical saga of such breadth and density.