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.(Goodreads)
This is undeniably one of the best books that I have read all year. Although it took me almost a month to read this book, it didn’t feel a drag at all – on the contrary, it’s been quite a delightful ride. I had a great kick out of reading this epic book.
The plot is well-crafted and simply magnificent. It’s packed with suspenseful moments and lots of dramas, and most importantly, it’s got everything – literally everything – I want in a book rolled into one.
I loved reading how the undercurrent main plot of building the cathedral intricately and masterfully entwines with so many subplots happening in this book, and how the characters are embroiled in the things that are beyond their controls and are affected by them. They are literally adrift in the sea of fate; one minute they are at the height of their prominence and the next minute they find themselves plunged into a state of destitute. As soon as they see a ray of hope at the end of a tunnel, the light was extinguished the very next moment, having their hope crushed. Rise and fall, defeat and hope. They keep coming almost alternatively throughout the book, it kept me turning pages. I just wanted to know how the story unfolds, how the characters end up. How gripping and captivating it was. I was completely mesmerized by this epic, grand story.
The writing is consistently solid, strong and incredibly descriptive. The descriptions of the church in Saint-Denis, in particular, was simply magical and breathtaking; the stream of light coming through rows of tall windows, how all the sunshine seems to fill the vast empty vessel of the church with warmth and light… utterly captivating and hypnotic. I felt as though the time stood still in the church; I was in awe of his writing. It took my breath away.
However, it also means there are some caveats; this book does contain some (not so many, I recall) gory scenes and it is where I think his prowess in writing was amazingly well-showcased. If you are squeamish and cannot take such descriptions, you might want to prepare yourself for the jolt; it’s surprisingly vivid and graphic. It did keep me engaged in the story the entire time, but this might not work for some of you – be advised that you bear that in mind when going into this book.
There were actually some slight incongruities in his choice of words that I found a bit odd, words like ‘ultra-sensitive,’ for instance. I personally found this incongruent with the overall tone of his writing; it felt a bit too casual and it didn’t sit well with me, but it didn’t pose much of a problem. It didn’t stop me from enjoying this book.
Overall, his writing is simply magnificent and enthralling. I fell in love with it.
To me, this book felt like a massive, grand tapestry consists of numerous fragments of quilts weaving individual characters’ stories. Each quilt beautifully and meticulously depicts each character’s drama – life, romance, struggles, defeat, vengeance…, placing them at the right place and then putting them together towards the end. Each story, each subplot is carefully and thoroughly delineated and I literally felt as though I were experiencing and vicariously living their lives. The execution was beyond reproach.
The romance between the main two characters which spans over several decades is also dramatic and gripping. To be honest, this was not a twist what I was expecting from this book, but I liked the fact that it didn’t end up overly sugary nor saccharine. It’s dramatic, but not overly melodramatic. Their eventual reunion in the church of Saint-Denis which takes place right after the discovery of the ideal architecture for Kingsbridge cathedral was executed with the perfect balance, making this book even more entertaining. This was definitely one of my favorite scenes in this book.
The characters are all well-fleshed out and strong; I had a ‘love or hate’ connection with each character. Some characters are downright evil and despicable; no matter how many times they taste the bitterness of defeat, they keep coming back like a phoenix, concocting and conspiring another scheme to seize power again. They are driven by greed and lust for power, I no longer remember how many times I gritted my teeth with frustration and how strongly infuriated I was by them; I seriously wanted to strangle them, each and every one of them.
But then, at the other end of the spectrum, you have just relatable, loveable characters whom you want to root for no matter what. They are all impactful both in a good way and a bad way, I was so invested in them that I sometimes felt mentally drained. I can honestly say this emotional connection with these characters is what made this book so magical and captivating.
The only issue that I had with this book was the last part of the book, especially the last 70 pages.
The whole denouement segment felt a bit drab and lackluster compared with the other parts of the book.
It is indeed twisty down to the last minute, there is actually a shocker in store in the very end which made me hold my breath, but overall, I felt it kind of lost momentum, I was just along for the ride to see how this epic story eventually wraps up.
The very ending left me in two minds; I didn’t know whether I should feel happy, relieved or feel sad. It left me with somewhat a bittersweet, poignant feeling.
That said though, again, this is undeniably by far the best book I’ve read this year. 1088 pages didn’t feel as long as I had thought. In fact, I didn’t want it to end; it would have been totally fine if there were another few hundreds of pages to go.
It was quite a delightful, exhilarating ride. I thoroughly enjoyed living in the town of Kingsbridge, witnessing all the dramas involving building the cathedral.
I ended up docking a half star, but I highly, vehemently recommend picking this up. It’s definitely worth your time.