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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

June 2, 2011

I listened to The Pillars of the Earth as an audiobook over the course of a year or so while working in my yard. Even as an audiobook, at 41 hours it’s a pretty daunting “read.” The sheer ambition of it is impressive, and not only does Follett deserve respect for such an undertaking, but narrator John Lee deserves a lot of credit as well. He brings to life a large cast of distinct characters and maintains consistent voices for them as well as the overall narration.

As for the content, there were aspects of the book that I thought were great and others that I thought were pretty awful. As I mentioned, the grand ambition of the book is stunning. Set in the 12th century, this work of historical fiction is follows the construction of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England in the half century leading up to the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett (a.k.a. Saint Thomas of Canterbury).

The book is packed with well-researched descriptions of life in medieval Europe and principles of architecture. Follett’s research is obvious. Unfortunately, it sometimes shows too much, as if he’s making a point of including it. I didn’t mind this from an educational perspective, but it sometimes feels clunky in the narrative. Although I’ve read a few reviews that criticize the book for its anachronistic errors, I’m not knowledgeable enough of the history to have noticed myself. As I read it, everything seems plausible and Follett does a good job of painting a believable backdrop for his epic.

The cast of characters is large, but the central figures are the two successive master builders of the cathedral, their families, and the prior of Kingsbridge. And here is the book’s first major flaw. The characters are so simply drawn and clearly delineated as good or evil that you could lay them out on a chessboard. They’re predictable and static, with one-dimensional motivations.

The plot too, although full of twists and turns, has a very predictable rhythm. Considering Follett’s body of spy thrillers, a plot with layers of conflict isn’t unexpected, but it starts to feel contrived by the end. Each time a character would get close to achieving a goal, I’d begin guessing what would go wrong or which conniving evil villain would intervene.

But my biggest problem with The Pillars of the Earth is that it is burdened with over-writing and excessive explanation—recaps of previous storylines, explanations of character motivations and heavy-handed exposition. Also, strangely, the book is packed with over-the-top, brick-to-the-forehead, schlocky sex scenes. I literally rolled my eyes at some of the descriptions of heaving breasts and swollen nipples.

That said, if you can get past the heavy-handed language, plotting and character development, this is a pretty fun ride. It’s full of well-drawn action, has an energetic plot and entertaining, if not completely unique or developed, characters. I didn’t love or hate this book. The flaws kept me from loving it, but the ambition kept me impressed and intrigued.  I can’t say that I’d be able to slog through the 1000 pages of the paperback, but as something to occupy my ears while my hands were busy in the yard, this book did the trick.

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