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Ken Follett
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The Pillars Of The Earth
paperback
1089 pages
The Pillars of the Earth is the story of the people who built cathedrals in twelfth-century Europe. Flanked by divine inspiration and greed, the forces for and against the building of a cathedral at Knightsbridge are the buttresses of this book.

Follett’s use of plain language is refreshing. By not distracting his readers with unfamiliar medieval English dialogue, he allows the reader to be fully carried along by the characters and their daily challenges. The use of plain language fully engages the reader in the machinations - financial, architectural, and spiritual - of building a medieval cathedral.

Each character is well-defined and distinguishable from the next. This is a true feat for Follett as the novel covers over 50 years and represents every class of citizenry in twelfth-century England. The mysterious outlaw Ellen whose gift of knowing is sometimes clouded by her pride. The Prior Phillip who eventually turns his perceived weakness into his greatest strength. And the sadistic William Hamleigh, the young upstart who tries to rape and pillage his way to power and respect. Linking all of these disparate characters is the building of the most spectacular cathedral of its time at Knightsbridge priory.

From the lowest monk and servant right up to the highest members of the British aristocracy and monarchy, Follett provides a unique physical description for each character. Names are specific to characters, as are their specific mannerisms and character traits. This is a true example of master novel writing, as Follett had to place his main characters among at least four distinct family lines that exist along side a plethora of conforming and non-conforming monks and priests, all living under the instable rule of competing lines for the British Throne at the time.

The actual design and construction of the cathedral also has a story line of its own. Politics and greed intervene. Over the time of its construction the cathedral falls victim to the ravages of jealousy, the waste of haste, and the pride of inexperienced builders.

Young Jack Jackson's search for his father leads him to Europe where he is exposed to architectural wonders never before seen in England. Jack brings his new found architectural skills back to England where he applies them to the cathedral in progress. Follett describes the art and skill of masonry in the same accurate plain language that he uses to tell us how people of the various classes earned their livelihoods during medieval times.

Well written, goes on a bit too long though, and gets a bit repetitive in the end..

Recommended nevertheless!
7/10
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Ken Follett
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World Without End
paperback
1110 pages
World Without End is Ken Follett's "sequel" to his similarly colossal novel, The Pillars Of The Earth, which was set in the 12th-century. It appeared two decades ago, and has become his bestseller. Like its predecessor, World Without End is set in a fictional Wiltshire cathedral city, "Kingsbridge".

Now, 200 years have passed, and the cathedral's structure is collapsing. The novel's central figures are Merthin, a soldier's son but a mason and architect, and Caris, an independent young woman who loves Merthin but is none too keen on marrying him, chary of a wife's expected obedience. Much of their on-off romance revolves around the rebuilding of the cathedral and, with it, the city – unsurprisingly, since Follett is a self-confessed cathedral buff. Set at intervals between 1327 and 1361, the novel has four main characters, but perhaps 20 important ones.

Follett plainly has several aims. One is to recreate, in plain English and contemporary dialogue, what local life was like – politics, agriculture, theology, law, medicine, food, sex, trade, property. Sometimes the language is so plain it's stilted.

This is also true, particularly at the outset, of Follett's attempts to smuggle research into the narrative. When the two central female characters, Gwenda and Caris, visit a herbalist, they are shown behind a curtain. "Why do you need to hide all this behind a curtain?" asks Gwenda. She is told that "A man who makes ointments and medicines is called an apothecary, but a woman who does the same runs the risk of being called a witch." Explanations like this always seem ponderous.

If this sometimes feels like being stuck in a history lesson, it's always an interesting one. Follett is keen to bring out the inherent conservatism of the squirearchy and church, and their overbearing maleness. He's also keen to emphasise the superstitions which govern local lives, and the climate of casual terror: murder and rape are commonplace, judgments are often rigged, and punishments brutal. The account of one miscreant being flayed alive is disturbingly precise.

Follett also (as in Pillars...) sketches the wider political world, most notably, if improbably, when Caris witnesses the victory at Crécy – from the French lines! – and meets Edward III. Here too, he is determined to make a point: great battles are really tyrannous, booty-driven slaughter-fests. But not such virulent killers as the Black Death, which overshadows the central chapters, and which pits religious superstition against medical intelligence. The plague scenes are expertly handled.

Where Follett excels is in telling a yarn. There is sufficient intrigue here, enough turns within double-twists, to hold readers through all the 91 chapters. Style takes second place to structure and plot. World Without End is exciting, full of sudden reverses of fortune – all the fun of the unfair. The story does become somewhat repetetive, could have done with a few hundred less pages. Recommended nevertheless!
7/10
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Running Apache