Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Pillars of the Earth review

Coming back from spring break, my ride and I had a few hours to kill before picking up his roommate at the airport. We spent the entirety of it at Barnes and Noble. I wandered half the store, picking up anything that caught my eye. One of the books I wrote down to find at a library later (poor college student) was Pillars of the Earth, by Ken Follett.

I'll admit I grabbed it for the cool, architecture-y cover and extra-fine paper, but then I read the foreword by the author himself. Follett explained that even though he usually wrote thrillers, he had become fascinated by cathedrals over the course of his life, and wanted to write a book about one being built. He wasn't a Christian, having grown up in a strict Plymouth Brethren church and disliked it, but that didn't dissuade him from visiting cathedrals in every city he visited.

He certainly did his research. I still needed to look up some of the terms to understand the different parts of the cathedral, but the picture he puts together gives a good idea for the scope of such an enormous and intricate building. His dislike of the church also didn't keep him from writing a very well-fleshed out and godly monk, who was my favorite character in the novel. (I go to a Plymouth Brethren church, by the way.) I appreciated his ability to find Prior Philip's perspective and make it equal to those of the non-Christian characters in the novel.

We also follow Tom, the man whose dream is to build a cathedral; fierce and beautiful Aliena, a noblewoman fighting to regain her place; the unconventional Jack, who follows in the footsteps of his stepfather, Tom; the malevolent Bishop Waleran Bigod, master manipulator; and William Hamleigh, the ascended bully with an agenda.

Overall, I liked the book, but there were some disappointments. Most doorstoppers I read (Brandon Sanderson, Robert Jordan, Neal Stephenson) have a TON of plot in them. It only makes sense, for such a large book. Pillars of the Earth kept me reading, but I was surprised that a thriller writer didn't put in some more twists and turns as to character motivations and turns of event. Part of this had to do with tying in actual historical elements; another factor was using the point of view of one of the villians, William Hamleigh. Thus, we would see dastardly plans being planned, and then we wouldn't be surprised when our good guys reacted to them. This actually did more good for the book than bad, but still, I wanted more surprise and thrill than was present. There was one big mystery that lasted for the whole course of the book, but it was more in the background than anything else. Bringing that forward could have helped pull readers along for the 60 in-story years and 900+ pages.

I had nothing to complain about with the writing itself -- and not much to praise, either. The prologue did an excellent job of hooking the reader, but other than that the writing was straightforward, though with a decent amount of differentiation between character voices. With such a big scope, I could have wished for more beautiful, memorable words.

Another thing that disappointed me personally was the amount of sex in the book. Apparently this is standard fare with Ken Follett, something I didn't know going in, so I was unprepared. This goes back to the dastardly villain thing; William Hamleigh rapes multiple women over the course of the book, mostly to show the readers exactly what kind of person he is. It's effective at that. I found it excessive -- it's quite graphic in almost every instance. Your mileage may vary. There's also a fair amount of violence, but since it deals with war and medieval England, I found it justifiable.

Still, villains are fought, futures are wrought, and all the characters we've been rooting for and against get endings worth reading about. For reasons previously stated, I won't be picking up the sequels. Still, I'm glad I read it.

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