In the town of Kingsbridge, a Gothic cathedral and the priory are at the center of a web of love and hate, greed and pride, ambition and revenge. Proponents of the old ways fiercely battle those with progressive minds, as the Black Death captures the city.
This book is being marketed as a sequel to the to Pillars of the Earth, a book considered by many to be one of the finest works of historical fiction ever written. Pillars has a worldwide fan-base that has been clamoring for a sequel. Now 18 years later, the sequel has arrived. Pillars captured the hearts and minds of historical fiction lovers worldwide because it recreated, with breathtaking authenticity, life during the height of the late Middle Ages. It was set in Kingsbridge during the 12th century, and focused on the building of the town’s cathedral. The four main characters in the sequel, World Without End, are direct descendants of the main characters in Pillars, but the book is set a full 200 years—ten generations—later, making these connections rather superfluous. It is clear that Follett has not created a traditional sequel—one that closely follows the main characters through many generations. Here, Follett obviously chose to focus on the town of Kingsbridge, not the immediate descendants.
Follett gives us Kingsbridge during one of the more interesting and critical periods in the history of Western Europe—the period when the Middle Ages are ending and the Renaissance is beginning. The author shows us how Kingsbridge reacts to the major forces that occurred during this period: the Hundred Years’ War; the weakening death throes of feudalism; and most important of all, the Black Plague pandemic of 1340. The Plague killed more than fifty percent of the population of Europe. Its effect was so enormous that it is perhaps best understood and grasped emotionally through a work of fiction rather than through a work of history.
The Plague changed everything. When it was over, the European world was headed in a new direction. One of the most intriguing effects of the Plague was that it caused a major shift in the balance of power from the clergy toward the mercantile class. All of this is faithfully and lovingly recreated in Follett’s vision of 14th-century Kingsbridge.
On the human level, the novel focuses on the everyday human, political, and economic struggles of Kingsbridge as seen through the lives of the four protagonists. This is a very large novel. At 1111 pages, Follett has amble opportunity to bring not only his four main characters to life, but also a huge supporting caste of townsfolk. Every aspect of the human condition is covered: greed, violence, torture, hatred, lust, love, jealousy, revenge, charity, piety, duplicity, power-mongering…the list is long, and the repetition at times seems endless. I would be remiss if I did not warn you that lusty sex does come up so frequently in this novel that one has to remind oneself that there was little else to do for fun back then. The emphasis on sex did not offend me—actually, it made the reading all that more exciting.
Follett did a lot of careful research before writing this sequel. The book is rich in details about the period’s architectural, mercantile, and feudal practices. The chapters that deal with the Hundred Years’ War give the author ample opportunity to tell us about the technology and art of warfare at that time. If there is a thematic focus in this book, it is demonstrating the shift from a clergy-centered world to a merchant-centered world following the Black Plague. As a result, Follett spend a great deal of time dealing with political and economic developments within the church and the town’s merchants. This is necessary, and here Follett succeeds admirably.
So, World Without End is not really a sequel to Pillars of the Earth, that is, not in the usual sense of the word. Neither book needs the other to be whole. Either can be read without the other, and if both books are read, it really doesn’t matter which one is read first. The better book is clearly Pillars, but World Without End is definitely worth the time, and will reward the reader with a memorable and fascinating fictional adventure.
Being immersed in either novel is an incredible experience—as close as you’ll every get to literary time travel! I loved every moment of it, and know I will return to reread both books again in the future.
According to the New York Times (Oct 25, 2007), Ken Follett has just signed a deal with Dutton to write The Century Trilogy. This work will cover several generations of families from the beginning of the 20th century through the Cold War. The first novel is scheduled for publication in 2010. There was no information given about where these novels will be set. Would Ken Follett dare to set it again in fictional Kingsbridge, some 550 years and 27 generations later? Let’s wait and see!
World Without End is an adventurous, if treacherous, ride: plague, murder, rape, blackmail, heresy, witchcraft, and backroom political “deals” (yes, even in 1300!). John Lee does a fine, fine job of narrating. And while I did not find this one equal to Pillars, its predecessor, it did make for hours of captivating entertainment and is highly recommended.
The story contained in this book occurs approximately 200 years after the story told in the prequel, Pillars Of The Earth. Many of the characters in World Without End are descendants of the characters in the earlier book. And just as architecture and construction were part of the earlier story, it is also found in this book. Again there are structures falling down with disastrous and life changing results. This time we learn that deteriorating foundation conditions below ground are the source of the structural problems. This is in many ways symbolic of the deterioration of the leaderships and economy of the region over the preceding 200 years. In the time of Pillars, the monastery had been a pious institution that encouraged learning and innovation; in the 14th century the monks have become conservative and discourage any modernization.
Modern day architects, engineers, doctors, nurses and even economists should enjoy reading about the struggles of working in a culture that honors revealed wisdom from past masters above that of current day innovators. It's also interesting to follow the politics and intrigue of life within a monastic priory where life is suppose to be focused on prayer. There are several examples in the story of smart women giving good advice to clueless men, so female readers should get a kick out of that.
The incidents in this book fit within the broad outline of 14th Century history. It paints a vivid picture of England's economy and class structure as well as the changes that resulted from the Black Death Plague. However, professional historians of the 14th Century will find plenty to quibble about. Some of the characters in the book are probably too skeptical of 14th Century thinking to be realistic. As a matter of fact, the two main characters, Merthin and Caris, have world views that are surprisingly compatible with those of typical 21st Century readers. Caris even has a rough concept of scientific medicine and Keynesian economics.
Since the commonly accepted theory regarding the primary transmission of the plague is that it was carried by fleas from rats, I was expecting the author to make some mention of the presence of rats. But no such reference is made. I know that the people at the time had no idea about that, but I thought some mention would be made of rats and fleas being present since the modern reader would be expecting it. There is reference in the story to a cat living in the priory, so perhaps it contributed to a reduced death rate by catching rats. But there is no observation made in the story that the cat was good at catching rats.
This book is popular literature, not great literature, aimed at entertaining today's reader. The author does a good job of doing just that by telling an interesting and entertaining story. As can be expected in popular literature, sexual thoughts and activity are fully explored in this book. The descriptions of sexual activity are not overly explicit, but are persistent enough to embarrass a prudish person like myself. If Canterbury Tales is any indication, the 14th Century was not an overly prudish time with regard to sex, so the book may be on target in this regard.
I think the book falls short in its description of the interrelationship between language and class in 14th Century England. Follett makes no attempt to make the dialogue reflect the dialect of the time. It is my understanding that, at the beginning of the 14th Century, the prevailing language of the educated upper class in England was French, while at the same time the peasant lower class spoke middle English (a la Chaucer). This changed by the end of the 14th Century with English being spoken by both upper and lower classes. (Parliament was opened in the English language for the first time in 1362.) There is a theory supported by some historians that this change was brought about by The Black Plague because so many school teachers died. The story as told in World Without End indicates several times that the educated English were able to speak Norman French. However, the narrative makes no mention of barriers in communication within English society caused by different languages spoken by upper and lower classes. I think the author missed an important issue of 14th Century English life by not emphasizing these language issues.
Another complaint, the book is too long. I wish authors who wanted to write stories this long would have arranged to be born in the 19th Century where they belong. People had more time to read then. In this era of so many books and so little time, books of this size really slow down progress on making it through the back-log of books to read. ;-)
Even though I can find things about the book to criticize, I nevertheless enjoyed it's lengthy and intertwined story. If I gave it fewer than five stars I would be guilty of being a hypocrite; pretending to be unimpressed with popular literature while secretly enjoying it. So I'll be honest and give it five stars based on the pure enjoyment of being immersed within a distant time in history.
If you're interested in a non-fiction account of this same time period from the French point of view, I recommend A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.
Read in November, 2008
recommended for: anyone who enjoyed reading the book, "Pillars of the Earth."
Such a let down!
All these complaints said, I couldn’t put the book down. I stayed up ‘til past 3 for two nights until the book was finished. The author does an excellent job of describing Kingsbridge as well as the culture of the middle ages. I also enjoyed reading about the conflicts the warrior class, as exemplified by Ralph, the church, as exemplified by Godfrey, and the merchant class, as exemplified by Caris's faather. Too bad that wasn't more fully developed! World Without End is very much a plot-driven book. So, borrow the book from the library or a friend, and enjoy.
Telling the tale of four very different characters growing up in 14th century England, World Without End tries very hard to be both historically accurate and an enjoyable read for a modern audience. For the most part it succeeds.
The story centres on the (fictional) town of Kingsbridge, with the politics of guilds and the church providing driving much of the story. The mediaeval church comes off pretty badly in Follett's hands, seeming a den of iniquity and hypocrisy in which the few good men are crushed by the weight of the bad. And the bulk of the story is taken up with detailing the sufferings of the 'good' characters. In fact, it reads a little like a soap opera at times, with some of the plot lines more than a little contrived.
The historical material, including descriptions of the architecture, is well done, but often awkwardly inserted in as-you-know-bob, infodump style. Follett does a good job of highlighting the conflict between tradition and the forthcoming scientific method in medicine, but this and the conflicts over the role of women seem somewhat anachronistic at times.
Although the characters are engaging enough, their motivations are a little random at times, and the plot is not helped by Follett's insistence on a 'blood breeds true' approach to psychology, in which a character's personality is pretty much decided at birth by who their parents were.
Despite these flaws, the story is engaging and highly readable, and a lot better than much of the historical fiction published. It's just a shame it isn't a little more polished.
World Without End is just long and boring - A Story Without End might have been a more appropriate title. Over 1000 pages of the same story repeated over and over. Unlikely love (sex, anyway), unrequited love, church power struggles, and the plague are the themes repeated ad nauseam.
A previous reviewer had complained about the excessive sex in the book and, not having read the book yet, I thought that reviewer was just being a prude. Wrong. Sex occurs dozens of times and it's not even all that titillating or erotic. After a while, one wonders what is the point of the sex scenes. Perhaps Follett set himself goals of 1000 pages and 100 sex acts.
Follett's characters are an unusually randy bunch - I've no problem without that, except that the sex scenes tend to become boring with their repetition every ten pages or so. And then there's the plague, and then there's the plague, and then there's the plague, and...well, you get the idea.
A World Without End is just boring. And really long. The narrative voices tend to be entirely too modern in their viewpoint. Anachronistic in a word. The book is nearly a 1000 pages long and still manages to give a superficial treatment to the 14th century.
If you read Pillars of the Earth, then you probably feel compelled to read this sequel. Resist the urge. You can read three good books in the time you'll waste on this paperweight.
What's great about this book? It is so well written. I love the almost-nonstop action and the characters are so well developed. Great details about medieval times!
Yes, there are similarites to Pillars in many of the characters, but it is a couple of centuries removed and I especially liked Caris, the forward-thinking woman stuck in the 14th century. I can't wait for my husband to read it so we can discuss things.
But having said all that, if you are hooked on history, especially medical history and love the medieval period, you'll find much to enjoy. Follett does fairly well describing the ups and owns of civil life in a town suffering an incredible crisis and the deep changes -- mental, spiritual, economic, agricultural and political that ensued in the wake of the Black Death. The pace does pick up towards the end and I enjoyed the character of Gwenda, the plucky peasant woman, much more than that of Caris -- the business woman, turned nun, turned lay hospital administrator. Sorry, but I just found Caris completely unlikely in a time period where most women didn't live past their 40's -- never mind having a lover, an abortion, three major careers, authoring a successful medical book, being tried for witchcraft, and then being haled as a saint. Don't think so! Follett is trying to recreate the very interesting character of Prior Phillip from Pillars --- and I don't think it works.
I'm wondering what Follett has in store for us next. Shall we see Kingsbridge Cathedral endure the Blitz?
It's a sequel to Follett's The Pillars of the Earth, which I remember really enjoying. I don't read a lot of historical fiction, but that one was interesting. My dad seems to like sweeping, epic stories, and whenever he's recommended something to me, I've liked it. He's the one who gave me Michener's Hawaii when I was in middle school (I loved it).
Anyway, this installment of the story picks up about 200 years after the cathedral was finished and centers on a young mason's apprentice and his romantic interest, the daughter of a wool merchant. I'm not going to pretend to be expert in the culture and history of the middle ages in Europe, but the characters didn't ring true. Caris, the female protagonist, was a very modern feminist and I couldn't help being annoyed by the obvious anacronistic behavior she displayed. Also, the story was a bit of a retread from the first book. Still, I liked it well enough to read all 1024 pages of it.
I think what most impressed (amazed?) me about this book was that Follett was able to maintain the exact same style and feel that he achieved more than 20 years ago when he wrote Pillars. Given the intervening years (not to mention the number of books that he's written in the interim), I marvelled at how seamlessly he was able to bring readers back to Kingsbridge without missing a beat.
I hope that I don't have to wait 20 years to find out what happens to Kingsbridge and its citizens in the 1500s!