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Before 1989, Ken Follett was a highly successful thriller novelist but in that year he published his magnum opus, The Pillars of the Earth, which was a significant departure from his previous style. Whereas he'd made his name with a series of contemporary thrillers, The Pillars of the Earth was an epic historical novel about the building of a cathedral. His publishers were unsurprisingly very reluctant for one of their successful writers to take such a risk but he held his ground and after a long time writing it was released and ended up being Follett's most successful book by a large margin, making his nervous publishers a hell of a lot of money in the process.
So, finally, as fans of the first one have been clamouring for years, Follett has released World Without End - not a sequel, as it takes place many generations after the first novel but a follow-up, as it takes place in the same fictional town of Kingsbridge.
Pillars was a book that many people took to their hearts, and it was a word-of-mouth type success. It was popular for many reasons, and as I've reviewed that book on this site I'll refrain from getting into too much detail about that, however, as this book is so bound up with its predecessor it is impossible to review this one without referring to it.
The book opens in 1327, with a young girl called Gwenda being forced by her grubby father to steal the purse of a knight while at a service in Kingsbridge Cathedral. This act has profound consequences, as the knight can now no longer pay his debts, so the Church confiscates his lands and his sons have to be apprenticed out. The biggest, most violent son called Ralph is made a squire and the other, a small but clever lad called Merthin, is apprenticed to a carpenter. The thief Gwenda is befriended by a kind-hearted rich girl called Caris.
These four characters form the core of the entire 1237-page novel which takes place over their entire lifetimes, following them through their triumphs and failures, loves and tragedies. It was a recipe that worked so well for Pillars of the Earth and it is therefore extremely disappointing to find that this book is nowhere near as good.
Having read Pillars, after getting half way through this novel, I realised, firstly, that it was fairly obvious what was going to happen through the rest of it and secondly that I did not really care to find out. It's as if the author traced his previous book and wrote it out again, using the same template but changing the character names and updating it by substituting the Black Death for the Anarchy and so on. The trouble is that it seeks to replicate the form of that book so rigidly that it completely fails to find the heart and soul underneath that made it such a success in the first place. World Without End ticks all the same boxes - epic timeframe, thwarted love, religion, architecture, social constraints, check, check, check - but, not just in spite of but actually because of that copying, comes off as somewhat empty.
Not only this but the novel lacks the single central driving force of Pillars of the Earth, and that is the building of the cathedral. Here we have instead a few small projects; a bridge, a chapel, the guildhall and the like. Very interesting to read about, yes, but there's a big hole in the centre of the book that Follett completely fails to fill. Similarly, the characters are very well drawn and their motivations and reactions are authentic - they make critical mistakes that can never be undone - but there is no one of the calibre of Prior Philip or Tom Builder, no one you really get behind and cheer on. Likewise, the baddie in this is - and this spoils nothing - the brutish rapist Ralph, and his motivations are so authentic that you don't exactly hate him, just feel sorry for him. Realistic, yes, good for this sort of novel, not really. Compared to the vile Earl William from Pillars, Ralph is a pussy.
In fact, the two characters that get the most time on the page are Caris and Merthin and at the start they are quite sweet and likeable children but by the end they have turned into these perfect, successful people who overcome every challenge with barely a pause. Okay, so once again Follett is using these two to personify the changes in society at large that occurred in the 14th Century but after a while it became incredibly irritating to see them once again rewrite the rules of their upbringing to resolve a problem with such ease. In fact, and you may laugh, I began loathing them. Not since reading the Earth's Children series by Jean Auel, and for similar reasons, have I hated a central character so much (this being Ayla, the paleolithic heroine who was apparently the first person to domesticate the horse, the dog and a sabre tooth lion for Christ's sake).
Having had a moan, let me say that this is still a decent novel. Follett's writing is as good as ever and brings the 14th Century to life, putting you down in the muck along with the characters, smelling the stench, seeing the filth and disease, as well marvelling at the relative luxury of the castles and abbeys. He's a skilled writer, and the pace, especially in the first half, is very fast (though later it does drag - sorry, still moaning...)
His research seems to me to be spot on, though I'm no expert, and everything down to the smallest detail has a basis in real history. Although, while the technological and social innovations are intrinsic to the story, he often works in the events of the time with a casual disregard for plausibility - he has a couple of nuns go to France just in time to witness the wake of the English army pillaging the country, then just come right home again. This is by no means a history lesson but you will nevertheless learn much about this era.
The big set-piece scenes are handled with incredible skill, and the action is highly exciting. There is one bit near the start where the young Gwenda is sold to a bunch of outlaws (swapped for a cow, no less, by her own father, in a very dark, very funny scene) to be used for sex, and she has to escape. I was on the edge of my seat - tapping my fingers, jiggling my feet, all that - for the whole time, and with a novel of this length some of the scenes can be very involved and so can be well played out, keeping you right in the moment for ages.
In summary, if you haven't read Pillars of the Earth, read that one first and don't expect too much of this one so that if you do give it a go, you won't have your high expectations shot down like I did.
Also, it looks like they are due to bring out a TV mini-series in 2010 based on Pillars of the Earth with a good cast, so you should maybe read it before that comes out? Ian McShane, Rufus Sewell, Donald Sutherland..? Could be good. I'll be watching.
World without end is the follow up book to Pillars Of The Earth by Ken Follett, and even though this may bring joy to the hearts of those who read the original, it is no in no way a necessity to have read the original book before reading this. The main reason for this is that although the book is set in the same place and in a similar time, perhaps some 100-200 years following the events of Pillars of the Earth, but does not involve the same characters the previous book, although mentions of them can be seen at points, as well as the inclusion of some of the offspring of the original characters.
The story begins with the main characters of the book as children, telling the events of bloody murder and a dangerous secret, that plays a role in the lives of the children throughout their lives. This in effect is in a similar style to the previous book, although of course in a different style that actually involves all of the main characters. This part of the book is filled with character introductions and provides an insight into what our reactions to the characters are likely to be as the book progresses.
From this we get into the main story, which begins some ten years or so after the events of the opening few chapters, and the style and intrigue of the previous novel is continued I the is, although for me it may be a better novel, but then I haven't read the first one for some time now.
The book is again quite an historical epic and does require a good amount of time for you to finish it, or at least take a good chunk out of it. But I would implore anyone that loved the previous book, or anyone who is looking for a good read that will keep them on the edge of their seat throughout, to get this book.
The narrative and style of the writing itself is in the classic style of Follett, with the often unsaid shouting louder than that which is said, allowing the reader to be come more involved in the book, making it their own, and this is one of the many reasons that I would look to champion this book. The story itself is split between two main lines story and as such splits between the two at many points, allowing you to remain on edge as to what will happen next. The characters themselves are also well written and you want them to succeed and feel frustrated when they don't but then that is how any good book should read, and thankfully this one follows up on the first in great fashion.
So, I would like to say that this is one of the best books that I have ever read, and although I don't get to read too many of these, I would thoroughly recommend it. And if you are a bit put off by the length then don't be, take the plunge and allow yourself to be engulfed in this epic trail of human endeavour and the conquering of it over hardship.