When I finally got round to reading "The Pillars of the Earth" I lapped it up. It was a massive book that if I am honest from the blurb did not sound very interesting. However, I found myself enthralled by the character's lives.
"World without end" is an even bigger novel and despite the positive reviews and a far more enticing blurb I was sceptical whether or not it would live to the standard of the first.
On the day after Halloween, in the year 1327, four children slip away from the cathedral city of Kingsbridge. They are a thief, a bully, a boy genius and a girl who wants to be a doctor. In the forest they see two men killed. As adults, their lives will be braided together by ambition, love, greed and revenge. They will see prosperity and famine, plague and war. One boy will travel the world but come home in the end; the other will be a powerful, corrupt nobleman. One girl will defy the might of the medieval church; the other will pursue an impossible love. And always they will live under the long shadow of the unexplained killing they witnessed on that fateful childhood day. Ken Follett's masterful epic "The Pillars of the Earth" enchanted millions of readers with its compelling drama of war, passion and family conflict set around the building of a cathedral. Now "World Without End" takes readers back to medieval Kingsbridge two centuries later, as the men, women and children of the city once again grapple with the devastating sweep of historical change.
As with "Pillars of the Earth," if took me an age to read this novel but it never once felt like a chore. A couple of times I finished a chapter and I was shocked that I was only 33% through the book for example but this was more due to the fact that so much had happened that it felt like I should have finished a novel rather than wishing I was at the end.
As the blurb suggests the book focuses on the lives of four children as they experience a significant event when they are young. It then follows them as they grow into adulthood and recounts the lives they endure.
All four of the characters are intriguing but some are more likeable than others. Merthin is probably the one most reader's will identify with. As a boy he dreams of becoming a knight but it is clear that he possesses neither the strength nor the ability to pursue such a career. Instead, his strength lies in construction and his ability to see problems and find solutions. In this regard he is not dissimilar to Philip in "The Pillars of the Earth" who wishes to build the cathedral. Merthin's ambitions are more lofty: He wishes to build the tallest building in England. Incidentally it is his designs that were used to construct the Shard by London Bridge - Ok so maybe I am kidding.
Still Merthin's practical outlook and strong moral code make him a character to invest in. He sees things plainly and when he falls in love, he is driven by his basic desires. This is also his greatest flaw. Merthin is unable to consider other people's points of view, at least not initially. For him things are black and white and often he is left confused by the actions of other characters until he analyses their motives. It makes him frustrating to read about but at the same time great to root for.
Caris is the female equivalent of Merthin. Intellectually she questions the religious hypocrisy of those in power who use their influence for their own greed. She is also very much against the conventional path set out for a woman. Instead she wishes to practice medicine. This leads to many a conflict with other characters where her heart says one thing but her head desires another. It makes for a fascinating character if not a logical one. At times I did question why someone with such intelligence would make herself miserable when it was obvious what would make her happy.
The third protagonist is Gwenda. Born into poverty she is treated appallingly by her father and forced to steal. Unlike the other ambitious characters, Gwenda's dreams are simple. It is heartbreaking then, when she has to endure the most torrid of times to achieve her modest goals. Out of everyone's story, I enjoyed Gwenda's battle the most. There is an admirable quality in the way she is realistic about her lot in life but is still determined to make something of it.
Out of the four main characters, Ralph is easily the least likeable. He is Merthin's brother and unlike Merthin he is possessed with the attributes needed to become a knight – at least physically. The trouble is, Ralph is a bully, and has a sense of entitlement that is unwarranted. Follett tries to balance his character by showing a more human side of the man, where he fears disappointing his older brother and on occasion wants to do the right thing. However, his acts are so deplorable that it is hard to feel any sympathy for the man.
There are a host of other characters that add to the epic story, from the Prior Godwyn to the petty Elfric. All are a cut above your normal one dimensional forms and possess motivations that are plausible. What this all this leads to is a terrific story spanning many decades.
Characters that were inherently good when they were young, become bitter and twisted in later years. Personalities shift as events impact on characters and old feuds rise up again and again.
In regards to being a sequel, the book is set far in the future from the events of "the Pillars of the Earth," the only thing that really ties the novels is the setting of Kingsbridge. I am no expert of the time period and have no idea how accurate Follet's research is, but for me he captures the period perfectly. He describes the hardships of everyday life of the townsfolk in unrelenting grim terms, but also tempers this with optimism. No matter how barbaric and harsh conditions were back in that era, life for the folk is just life. They of course knew better and so they are optimistic and enjoy the festivals etc when they happen.
There are flaws. Follett does not seem to be able to describe a woman without mentioning her breasts. Maybe this was a sign of the times, but a bit of variety would have been most welcome.
There is also a portion of the novel that takes place in Florence, which although is very well written and entertaining, feels a bit unnecessary and feels contrived to implement the historical significance of the events into the story.
As I mentioned previously, the story spans decades, Follett however does a good job of keeping the story focussed on the four main characters despite the plethora of new characters that enter and leave the fray. The ending is more than satisficatory, solving mysteries that began at the start of the novel and concluding all of the characters arcs.
All in all, "World Without End" is as good as if not better than "Pillars of the Earth." The characters are slightly more rounded and the events that endure are that bit more terrifying. This is a triumph of a novel and cements Ken Follett as an author I must read more of.
My rating: 9.3