Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

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October 05, 2015
This book is a monster!

My husband loves this book, so much so that he has read it twice (because he is a crazy person), and of course, because people usually want to share the things they love with the people they love, he suggested I read this book.

My mouth said, "sure!" but my brain was saying, "hell no, have you seen the size of that book? It is a monster."

I would have never, ever, ever picked up this book on my own. As if the sheer size of it wasn't enough to make me want to run the other way, the fact that it is presented as historical fiction set around the building of a cathedral certainly would do the trick. I avoided it for the longest time even though my husband kept mentioning how good it was and that despite its size it was a quick read and a total page-turner, because no matter what he said, it still looked like a monster!!!

And it is.

Needless to say, I finally decided to give it a shot, and even though my initial feelings about it being a monster never changed, it still managed to win me over! This goes to show how good a book it is.

(Seriously, if you can make me read a 973-page book where about 600 of those are about cathedral building techniques, and still make me be so into it that I lose sleep? That book is a winner.)

But anyway! Where do I even begin with this book?

This book is classified as historical fiction. This book is set in the 12th century around the building of a cathedral and a civil war due to a succession crisis. It covers a very long period of time and a huge cast of diverse characters whose lives are affected by these two particular events. It’s a book filled with tension and conflict and the never-ending struggle between good and evil and honestly, I was totally engaged. I didn’t care much for all the architectural details and explanations, if I’m being honest, though it still managed to blow my 21st century mind to be reminded that those huge, majestic buildings were built by common men working through war and famine and disease. It’s truly amazing!

But my most favorite thing about this book is the characters. Ken Follett managed to make me feel invested in these characters and their life stories despite the fact that there was little to nothing I could find relatable in them. Sometimes I was even frustrated by their approach to problem solving, deeming it illogical because I couldn’t put myself in their shoes (thankfully!). Follett does a good job in building this world and creating these diverse characters, even if on the surface they might seem one dimensional, easily placed in “good” or “evil” categories.

Take Philip and Waleran, for example. Both faithful men of god with completely different views in what it actually means to be a man of god. Philip, so nice and sweet and pure, willing to sacrifice his dreams of making Kingsbridge a prosper town because “it might not be in God’s will.” And then there’s Waleran, cunning and manipulative, willing to do anything to rise to power within the church because “the end justifies the means.” They are two of the most obvious “good” vs “evil” characters, and yet, that’s not all there is to them.

Philip is a good man, sure, but he isn’t entirely incorruptible. He is willing to play the politics game more than once if it means he gets to move forward in his plan to fix Kingsbridge. Isn’t that how he becomes Prior? Or how he restarts the building of his cathedral once Jack returns? Even the idea of portraying Becket as a martyr comes with ulterior motives, even if those motives are for the greater good. With Waleran, it’s harder to see that he’s more than an “evil” character, but I would like to think that he’s a product of the terrible, merciless people he ends up surrounding himself with. Maybe once upon a time, when he first decided to become a man of god, he had the right idea and the best interests in mind. Or! Maybe it wasn’t his decision to become a man of god after all, so acting in good faith was never really his thing.

Either way, just like these two, there are plenty other examples of characters who might seem to fit one particular category, but who still have depth to them. Jack, Alfred, Aliena, Richard, Ellen, Tom… the list goes on.

The only character I can say with no problem that was terrible, horrible with no redeeming qualities whatsoever and I hate him so much oh my god, is William Hamleigh. He was just bad for the sake of being bad. It seems Ken Follett needed a villain and instead of making it interesting, he just piled all this evil crap on one single character. I didn’t see any reason behind all the evil acts he committed aside from his hurt ego, and while that might have been a thing back in the 1130s, it still doesn’t seem like spending decades raping and killing innocent bystanders was the appropriate response to Aliena refusing to marry him, but what do I know?

But I forgive Follett for that because he made up for the horribleness of William Hamleigh by writing a delightful cast of strong, capable women. These women demonstrated that, despite the customs and culture of the times, they could still get by on their own and do just fine. Of course, these women were still victims of misogyny. They are described as witches or frigid and in one particular instance, the character is disfigured, but I like to tell myself that the author was just being true to the time period this book is set in.

This was also the attitude I had to take whenever violence towards women, particularly sexual violence, came up. And let me tell you, it came up a lot. William Hamleigh couldn’t see a female character without thinking about 50 ways he could rape and make her suffer, and he actually went through with it about half of those times. It was infuriating how much rape was featured in this book, to the point where I considered giving up if I had to read one more sentence about this asshole attacking a woman for sexual pleasure. I understand, though, that medieval views on violence towards women (or women in general) were vastly different from modern views, so all I had to do was keep that in mind, take a deep breath and skip to the next scene.

I still hate William Hamleigh with the fire of a thousand suns, though.

Which is a good enough segue into talking about things I didn’t like about this book!

William Hamleigh is the worst.

But also, I didn’t like how long this book was. I have no idea if this is how it went down, but this book definitely reads like Ken Follett wanted to write a very detailed book about building a cathedral, so he had to think up some plot to make it interesting. At first, all the plot twists and turns are fun and exciting and you find yourself deeply involved in these characters’ lives. And then, another bad thing happens. And then everything is solved! And then another bad thing happens. And then, it’s fixed! And then a hurricane happens… Repeat ad nauseum until you find yourself hoping that the next time someone tries to burn down the town, EVERYONE DIES. It just doesn’t seem possible that so many bad things happen to the same group of people over and over again! It’s Grey’s Anatomy set in medieval times England, basically.

This problem of seemingly running out of ideas is also very obvious by the end of the book. The last two chapters take place roughly 20 years after the previous chapter and honestly, I feel those were put there so Follett could write a few more paragraphs about the finished product, throwing in the Thomas Becket plot to fill out the pages and tie some loose ends. It just seemed to come out of nowhere and felt rushed and unnecessary and because of that, the ending was kind of a letdown for me.

It was still a good, entertaining book. The writing was light-hearted, so at times it didn’t feel like I was reading almost 1000 pages. It also kept me reading well into the night more than once, which is rare because I love sleeping more than breathing, but I just needed to know what was happening next!

I wouldn’t read it again, though. And after finding out the sequel is even longer than this one, I probably won’t read that one, either. I’ll just let my husband spoil it for me whenever he does!

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