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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

What I'm Reading: Pillars of the Earth

Earlier this summer I was immersed in listening to a backlist title I have been meaning to read for years, Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett.

This is a book people love. It  regualrly shows up on all-time favortie lists. In fact, although it was a big departure from the thrillers he wrote before, Pillars of the Earth has gone on to become Follett's most popular book.  There is a great write up and a link to an audio clip by Follett about why he felt he HAD to write this book here.

Here's the gist of the book from the publisher:
"As a new age dawns in England's twelfth century, the building of a mighty Gothic cathedral sets the stage for a story of intrigue and power, revenge and betrayal. It is in this rich tapestry, where kings and queens are corrupt - and one majestic creation will bond them forever."
This novel is close to 1,000 pages and over 400,000 words, but this single sentence is all you need to know about the plot.  Why you will or will not enjoy the journey of reading it is a different issue and is what I want to focus on.

The most striking think about this book is the frame.  The 12th century setting and all of the details to recreate the place and time dominate the novel. Follett was able to place me, as a reader, right in the center of a world that is completely foreign to me.

But, there is also intrigue here, both a larger story about the power struggle for the throne of England and the smaller stories of "power, revenge and betrayal" among the main characters.

This combination of details and intrigue keeps the story moving.  It is a great example of methodical pacing.  It is deliberate, moving slowly, but the details and intrigue are enough to keep you turning the pages. You want to know what happens and why.

The novel's storytelling style most closely resembles an epic or saga in the historical fiction genre.

I also loved how all of the details come together at the end.  Every thing we learned about, every bit of character and setting minutia, they all come to matter.  And the novel nicely comes back to its start at the end.  It really is a full circle story. Readers who like to follow characters and a story through a complete story arc will find much satisfaction here.

One complaint I have seen from readers is that there is too much detail on the building of cathedrals, how they are laid out, how they are built, and the changes in building technology and styles in this era. For me, this was not a problem.  Yes there were huge sections of this detail--pages upon pages in the midst of the story-- but it was all new to me and I found it very interesting.  I was also listening to this novel.  I find when there is a lot of frame and detail in a story, I tolerate it better in audio.

Surprisingly for me, I haven't mentioned the characters yet.  I am a big character-centered story fan, and while Pillars of the Earth is character heavy, it is much more plot driven.  The plot is directly dependent upon the characters, their motiviations and who they are at their moral cores, but I would not say this is a charcater driven story.  The characters are developed as much as they need to be.  Some are very full and rich, others are more sketched out.  This range is not dependent upon how important they are to the story either.  But with so much detail about the time, place, and catherdral building, the main focus of the novel is on moving the plot ahead.

There is a nice stable of characters from all over the map though.  There is the Prior, a builder and his family members, an Earl's family, and a business class family that share the story's pov. Some of these protagonists are good, others very bad, and many more falling somewhere in between. All together they present a nice snapshot of the era. It is their drama, together, and that of the fate of the cathedral that keeps the story moving.

So I would summarize Pillars of the Earth in appeal terms as a plot driven narrative with a huge historical frame and interesting, if not always complex, characters.

I thoroughly enjoyed Pillars of the Earth. While I was reading the novel I was completely caught up in its world. But I will also concede that I was mentally prepared for a long, methodical book. If you want a quick read, this is not it.  If you want an absorbing one though, Pillars of the Earth is a nice choice.

There is a sequel, World Without End, which takes place in the same town, but 2 centuries later and during the time of the Black Death.  Since they are so far apart in time, either can be enjoyed on its own. Anecdotally, people tell me that Pillars of the Earth is "better," but I cannot say.  I do know that with so many books to read, I will probably not invest the time in the 1,000 page sequel in the near future, but am not going to rule out eventually giving it a try.

A note on the narration: I love John Lee as a narrator. His commanding, smooth, British voice kept me hooked for the full 31 hours and 48 minutes it takes to get through the novel.  He was able to sustain the drama through all the detail too.

Three Words That Describe This Book: historical, intricately plotted, intrigue

Readalikes: There are a few different ways to go here.

Obvious readalikes are other richly detailed and intricately plotted historical fiction novels.  Hilary Mantel's award winning and extremely popular Thomas Cromwell trilogy (only 2 books so far) is an obvious read alike.  Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies are the first two titles.

But if you like richly detailed, epic, and compelling historical fiction all in one big book, the novels of Edward Rutherfurd are for you. Like Pillars of the Earth, Rutherfurd's novels focus on people, place, and event details. Pick any based on the setting. To stay in England, Sarum is the place to start.

For people who like the idea of Pillars of the Earth but found it too slow, I would suggest Bernard Cornwell. Here we have historical adventure at its best. There is great detail and characters but it moves at a fairly brisk pace.  Fans of the Follett setting should try the Saxon series set in the 9th Century in England, beginning with The Last Kingdom.

Since Pillars of the Earth is such a fan favorite, check out the suggestion from readers on GoodReads too.

Finally, my outside of the box suggestion may sound crazy, but I can't shake how similar these stories feel...If you like the intrigue, the back stabbing, the family drama, the revenge, and the pure hunger for power at all costs here in Pillars of the Earth, you will find much of this in George R. R. Martin's Song of Ice and Fire epic fantasy series.  Critics have already said that Martin's series is the War of the Roses (15th Century England) with magic, so this connection to a 12th Century historical is not too off the wall.  But it is not just the plots that I find similar.  Both have a shifting point of view with a huge cast of characters and LOTS of detail. If you like one of these hugely popular works, try the others.

2 comments:

Donna said...

You say this is 12th century England. Does it cover any of the war between Stephen and Maud over the throne? If so, this would be in the same period as "When Christ and His Saints Slept" by Sharon Kay Penman. It also would be the same time period as Brother Cadfael by Ellis Peters. I enjoyed those two books, so I must give this one a try.

Becky said...

Donna, it does have a bit about Stepehen and Maud, but it's all very surface. So maybe not for hardcore fans of that conflict. Good call. I am less up on that stuff. Thanks for sharing.