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The Pillars of the Earth Book Review

August 20, 2012

This….saga. I can’t even–

Well, okay then.

Background: I was talking to the Invisible Ninja Cat because that’s what I do with my life and she mentioned this book, The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. The Ninja was extolling its medieval virtues of cathedral-ness and rooting for the characters, which was a minorly confusing experience since I had no idea who they were at that point. To alleviate my confusion, she offered to lend me the book, but I checked my home bookshelf and discovered my dad had bought it years ago as a Christmas prezzie. AND SO IT BEGAN.

Now, this book is a 973 pages. NINE-HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-THREE MO’FO’ AWESOME PAGES with me alternatively cooing at ALL THE CUTE BABIES/wriggling with JOY and me SCREAMING until my mental voice was HOARSE because honestly, WOULD THIS CHARACTER JUST DIE ALREADY.

Wow, aren’t you guys glad I’m not a professional book reviewer? But seriously: it’s a good, long read. Mr. Follett’s epic chronicles the building and events around the building of Kingsbridge Cathedral, a story that spans from 1123 to 1174, weaving in historical events with Follett’s fictional characters’ lives and dramas. For anyone who’s even remotely into medieval history or how to build your very own cathedral, I would definitely check it out. Mr. Follett is a meticulous writer, his eye for detail suggesting a frightening amount of research went into this book. These details do their job too, really bringing you into the twelfth century world, how it must have been like to live there, breathe that air, and feel that sunshine. You feel like you could easily enter the story and at some moments you powerfully want to do so, either to kill that damned William Hamleigh, slap Alfred Builder in his big oxen-like face or help Aliena and Richard in their wool trade business and stand in Jack’s finished cathedral and bathe in the light of the new, stained glass windows. If you have Anglophilia, you’re definitely going to get those English *feels* that make you want to screw your budget and buy that plane ticket. Or force your little brother to hurry up and make you that time machine because, damn Follett, I want to be there.

There’s drama at every turn, new obstacles constantly getting in the way, and the heroes and villains cleverly getting around them. There’s always at least two things going on with any given page and the novel is quite divided up, switching between third person limited viewpoints of its principal characters. It keeps the reading fresh and interesting and your favoritism of one character over the other comes out when you find yourself skimming over the bits narrated by the ones who dislike (William Hamleigh *cough**cough*).

Speaking of character favoritism, it’s a bit Game of Thrones-esque, with the reader able to choose the character that holds their greatest loyalty, or is their special favorite. Delightfully, the line between protagonist and antagonist is blurred somewhat, as some of the “good” characters do other things that anger the other “good” characters (Prior Phillip versus Ellen, Jack, & Aliena, for example). It isn’t made instantly made manifest who the villains are either and even then they have their semi-redemptive moments. Mr. Follett works hard to have his gray characters and the effect is stunning, giving the reader a lovely and savory view of humanity. I feel the characters and the cathedral are really at the heart of this story and Mr. Follett equally loves cuddling and thwarting them, a trait that is devious and marvelous in any writer.

Despite it’s obvious brilliance, Pillars does have its drawbacks. The main one, I think, is that Mr. Follett is used to being a thriller writer. He is actually a really awesome thriller writer; in fact, the Invisible Ninja Cat is already discussing the wonderfullness that makes up Hornet Flight. But the downside of thrillers, I think, are a lot of the conflict comes externally. In other words, there’s much more emphasis on an external enemy i.e. another character’s nefarious plot instead of an internal conflict with super intense character development or psychology, the character overcoming something within. Thrillers are fast-paced, so there’s not a whole lot of time for that.

The effect this phenomenon has on Pillars is a frustrating one. The reader can practically feel the characters burning with want, feel their anguish and anger and longing and frustration and tears, but these obstacles keep popping up that get in the way. The characters, the environment, or historical events keep having brainchild after brainchild to get in the way of building this gorgeous cathedral: it makes you want to grasp them by the shoulders and shake them until their eyeballs rattle. This is especially true when you can figure out how the chess pieces are going to end up at the conclusion of the latest crisis. It’s the most problematic in the first Part of the story. It doesn’t take a dedicated Sherlockian to figure out that Tom Builder is going to be master builder for the Cathedral, that Phillip will be prior, or Ellen can’t hack the monks. Part 1 ends really nicely though, with a beautiful song and Ellen being a badass (you’ll understand by the end of the prologue that Ellen is basically the resident badass of the book), and it goes a long way to cooling the reader’s frazzled nerves. The middle is much better, containing multiple cheerful and devastating plot twists, but as the story winds down and the reader realizes that it’s only a matter of paragraphs before the cathedral is finished, the frustrated feeling returns.

And really at some point I was saying, “here’s an idea: take your money, hire an assassin, and just have him killed, okay? Because there are easier ways to do this and everybody would throw you a ticker tape parade if you had this person killed.”

The other effect of being a thriller writer that constitutes my one other chicken bone to pick with Mr. Follett’s historical masterpiece is the lack of character development. The characters alter subtly, some growing from childhood to adulthood or gaining humility, but none of these changes are cataclysmic. Everyone basically stays as they were when they were introduced. The reader’s view on them may change and the characters are complicated to begin with, but there were just some areas I wanted explored or dealt with. Alfred, for instance, is introduced as a malicious bully and stays a malicious bully. There’s no reason given for him being so, he just is, his maliciousness actually growing as the book goes on. This growth interests me a lot: who marries their brother’s girl out of pure spite? Especially in this time period when marriage was rather permanent. Why would someone never take interest in any potential wife? There’s a suggestion that he’s impotent, but to never have a romantic interest in anyone suggests a deeper character conflict, which Mr. Follett doesn’t really address. I can speculate, surely: all three of Tom Builder’s biological children aren’t very interested in sex, hinting at some sort of asexuality. Does this have something to do with Alfred being a total jerkface to Jack or is it unrelated? Maybe Alfred’s a closet psychopath or sociopath, who just hates society. I honestly don’t know.

So besides hungering for some grande scheme of internal conflict in a character and not wanting so many magically-appearing obstacles to getting the cathedral built, I really did enjoy this book. There’s a sequel out already called World Without End, which the Invisible Ninja Cat and I have already adopted as our pseudo-book child with joint custody privileges included. Mr. Follett’s attention to detail and distinct voice will help me on my thesis (more on that later) and his drama and characters won’t be forgotten anytime soon. I don’t know, guys: this book makes you want to walk into a cathedral, take a deep breath, and absorb all the dedication to beauty and God it took to build it.


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