Friday, March 13, 2015

Pillars of the Earth - Ken Follett

“Jack was too absorbed in his work to hear the bell. He was mesmerized by the challenge of making soft, round shapes of hard rock. The stone had a will of its own, and if he tried to make it do something it did not want to do, it would fight him, and his chisel would slip, or dig in too deeply, spoiling the shapes. But once he had got to know the lump of rock in front of him he could transform it. The more difficult the task, the more fascinated he was. He was beginning to feel that the decorative carving demanded by Tom was too easy. Zigzags, lozenges, dogtooth, spirals and plain roll moldings bored him, and even these leaves were rather stiff and repetitive. He wanted to curve natural-looking foliage, pliable and irregular, and copy the different shapes of real leaves, oak and ash and birch.”

This is the story of a cathedral and the people who fight for its birth and for its destruction, all encompassed by a succession crisis in 12th century England, complicated by secrets, lies and betrayals. Throughout the book, reader’s switch between several protagonists important in the life of the cathedral, experiencing the medieval period from down in the dirt, just struggling to survive.

I appreciated how much background was given to most of the characters, including our point of view characters. Readers come to understand how much Prior Philip cares for his makeshift family after his own had been killed when he was young; they root for Aliena to win the day after everything is taken from her over and over again; they cheer Jack on in his pursuit of becoming a Master Builder even when obstacles like family and his social economic status work against him. Follett makes you care about the fate of these characters and wonder about how they’re going to extricate themselves from certain situations. I also heartily enjoyed the moment when people pulled together to try and thwart the antagonists who seemed to have entirely too many opportunities for mischief.

The story did have a few glaring problems though. The pacing is poor, creating a lack of tension for the first half of the book. While the story does a good job of setting up the plot and introducing the characters, the action didn’t pick up until the end of the book. It felt like the majority of the conflict was held in reserve for the last half while the beginning was taken up with dialogue and description. The problem is likely in the switching between protagonists which creates a stop and start effect in the narrative, interrupting the fluidity of the story.

Follett does a good job of grounding the reader in the scene, giving you a taste of the period and all its myriad smells and sights. But there is entirely too much time spent on describing the architecture within the story. It’s understandable that some time would be devoted to this as the book centers around the building of a cathedral but it took too much time away from the story. Also, it seems unlikely that the majority of readers would be familiar with the features described so it would have helped if there had been diagrams at the front of the book. It was difficult to visualize some of the descriptions which brought me right out of the story.

Overall it was an interesting story but if a thousand page story is overlong for you I would recommend the miniseries produced several years ago. Keep in mind though that they do make changes to the story.  New characters and plotlines are added to flesh out the story and add tension. There are also several key changes made to characters which I didn’t agree with as it altered their entire personality.

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