The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Rating: ★ ★ ★ ★ ☆
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publication Date: 1989
Format: Kindle
Length: 725 pages
Description from Goodreads:

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.

*So first off, this book takes place in the 1100s, so a lot of rough things are in this book, like rape, very toxic masculinity, death, violence, etc. So if you’re sensitive to those types of things, this book probably isn’t for you because it does go into some graphic detail.*

I first heard this about this book from the Professional Book Nerds Podcast. I listened to like three different episodes out of order and one of the hosts mentioned this book in all three. I immediately added it to my TBR list, but for a while couldn’t bring myself to pick up a ~1000 page book about cathedrals.

Then I took a week off of work and wanted to read a book I could really get immersed in and this seemed like a good candidate because of its length.

Still, all I knew about this book is that it’s about building a cathedral, so I was still a bit skeptical. Fortunately, as soon as I started reading, I was instantly hooked.

I don’t even know why. The book doesn’t start out particularly interesting and I found myself barely relating to the characters or setting, but still, I wanted them to succeed. I guess that even though these characters were so different from myself in a time that was so wildly different, there were still a lot of similarities to situations today. For example, a ruler bullying and manipulating people to get their way and ordinary people feeling helpless to stand up to them.

As the book progressed and more characters were introduced, I did find people to relate to, but at first I didn’t really have that.

Throughout the book I spotted a lot of similarities to A Song of Ice and Fire (this was published seven years before A Game of Thrones, too). The story is told from the perspective of multiple characters, and like in ASoIAF, some of the view point characters are the bad guys. The way he writes the villain perspective is so good. You really get a sense for how screwed up they are and some of the thoughts they have made my skin crawl.

Another similarity between the two is the graphic violence and constant killing of characters. There is a lot of political plotting and backstabbing as well. I really loved watching all of the characters constantly try to manipulate one another to get what they want.

It also suffers from the same description problems that ASoIAF does. Seriously, I don’t need like three pages of description on what this one section of this room looks like.

I was not a fan of Follett’s writing style in general. In addition to the loads of unnecessary descriptions, this book has very long paragraphs that sometimes took up the whole page, which made it a bit annoying to read. That on top of the fact that Follett avoids using commas like the plague.

There were also a bunch of typos and missing punctuation, which is pretty ridiculous for a book published in 1989 that has been published multiple times (I assume the Kindle version is probably one of the more recent versions).

My issues with the writing aside, I loved this book. Before reading I had assumed that there would be a lot of filler content in a book of this length, but that wasn’t the case. There are so many characters in this book and different storylines, that it’s never boring (except when multiple pages are spent describing what a room looks like).

Exciting things were constantly happening. It seemed that every time things started going well for a character, something terrible would happen that would completely change everything. The only time I really felt bored with the story was for a small section at the end.

I know I complained about the book being overly descriptive, but Follett really excels at worldbuilding. From the start, I felt immersed in this world that is so different from our own. I really felt like I had a clear picture of every location in my mind and could imagine the characters in this world.

A lot of the cultural aspects seemed true to the time period, but I’m happy that at least the main female characters weren’t subjected to the type of role many would have been in this era. Aliena and Ellen in particular really stood up for themselves and fought to not just be someone’s property that could be married off and mistreated.

So it’s no surprise that Aliena was definitely my favorite character, with Ellen being a close second. I really loved many of the other characters throughout, but she was the one who I most consistently liked and cared about. I also really liked how different each character was and how each character’s voice was so unique.

The time jumping in this book was also handled pretty well. The book takes place over a 39 year time period, so there was some skipping around, but it didn’t feel forced or that we were missing something important when time skipped ahead.

I loved how long of a time period this book took place over. It was really interesting to see how characters changed throughout the book as they grew older, as well as how events from early on in the book still were impacting their personality so many years later. Characters that were teenagers in the beginning were nearing old age by the end, and their children were now adults. It’s such a unique bit of storytelling that you don’t see very often in books.

Besides seeing characters grow up, the landscape and political climate also drastically changed throughout the book, which was also super interesting to read.

The sometimes slopping writing aside, I really enjoyed this story. I’m not sure if I’ll read the rest of the series because from what it sounds like, Follett only wrote more books because of it’s success, and that doesn’t always lend itself to great books.


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