Saturday, February 27, 2021

Book review: The Kingsbridge Series - The Evening and the Morning, Pillars of the Earth, World Without End and A Column of Fire

I have been wholeheartedly invested in a book series based on historical fiction since the start of 2021. 

Before that, if anyone had asked me if I would read a massive book about building a cathedral, I probably would have raised an eyebrow and dismissed it with a polite 'no, thank you'. But it is a good thing that the book came heavily recommended so I eventually sat down to see what it was about. This was soon followed by a furious googling of the terms 'transepts', 'nave' and 'buttress' along with a dozen other architectural terms. I am so glad I overcame my initial skepticism because what followed was unexpectedly special indeed!

For decades, Welsh novelist Ken Follett was best known for his bestselling thrillers, beginning with Eye of the Needle (1978) which cemented his reputation as a master of the spy-thriller genre. A decade later, he took a sharp detour and indulged his long-standing passion for the architecture of classic European cathedrals when he published Pillars of the Earth (1989), the first instalment of the acclaimed Kingsbridge series. 

Ken Follett's best-selling Kingsbridge novels namely Pillars of the Earth, World Without End (2007) and A Column of Fire (2017), are much loved across the globe for their historical detail, gripping plots and memorable characters. Both Pillars of the Earth and World Without End have even been made into television mini-series. A fourth novel, The Evening and the Morning published in 2020 is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth. 

After spending a rewarding ~2.5 months on 3.5K pages and 1.2 million words, I am finally ready with my review 😀 

The Evening and the Morning

Released in 2020, The Evening and the Morning is a prequel to The Pillars of the Earth. The novel is set in England during the Dark ages (997 CE to 1007 CE), a vulnerable and fractious period for a country facing vicious Viking raids from the East and surprise Welsh attacks from the West. 

The novel revolves around the creation of the fictional village of Kingsbridge from a remote and insular hamlet. The story introduces the earliest inhabitants, their lifestyle, relationships and the way they go on to contribute to the growth and prosperity of the village. 

Multiple narrative threads are seamlessly weaved together bringing a myriad of interesting characters. There is Edgar the inventive builder with a tragic past, Lady Ragna the scintillating Norman noblewoman who travels to a strange land for love, Brother Aldred, the altruistic monk whose only mission in life is to advance learning and Wynstan, the cruel and power-hungry Bishop who will stop at nothing to achieve his self-serving ambitions. The paths of these four main characters repeatedly collide over the span of a decade and impact not only on their personal lives but also that of the community. 

The author adroitly recreates the Dark Ages by painting a picture of the brutal physical realities, the ignorance and superstition, the lack of fundamental human rights (such as slavery and exploitation of women), the oppressive influences of politics and religion on society among others. 

My favourite character from this novel is Lady Ragna. She is vivacious, fair-minded, shrewd, brave, vulnerable and strong. Her actions when faced with deception, betrayal, humiliation and even torture are admirable. Edgar is a wonderful character too - one whom you immediately warm to and keep cheering on until the end. He shares many favourable qualities with the male protagonists from Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. 

Delayed comeuppance is a recurring formula in Ken Follett novels. After reading so many of his novels, I have come to expect it. I must say that he also has a tendency to tie up all the loose ends often a little too conveniently or abruptly. I'm not complaining though because I find it satisfying and comforting when novels end on a feel-good note. My only gripe with this novel is in fact the title! Considering the other books in the Kingsbridge series which all have catchy titles, this one seemed a bit of a letdown (not to mention, is too long!). But don't mind me, I'm just nitpicking here. 

With strong historical themes, a convincing storyline, relatable characters, uncluttered prose and a reasonably swift pace, this unputdownable saga is a fitting prequel to Pillars of the Earth. Fortunately, The Evening and the Morning only enhances the overall quality of the iconic Kingsbridge series. The widely-accepted fact that the author managed to write a worthy prequel to a novel that came out 31 years ago (ultimately becoming a world-wide phenomenon) is testament to his vivid imagination and literary prowess. 

My rating for this book

Pillars of the Earth 
Published in 1989, Pillars of the Earth is a captivating historical masterpiece about the decades-long building of a magnificent gothic cathedral during the Middle Ages. 

Ken Follett takes the reader on an epic journey back in time to feudal England with its dense forests, humble towns and charitable monasteries. The 12th century was backward and violent - the era of ox carts, castles, noblemen, outlaws, public executions and civil war. There was rampant oppression, lawlessness, witchcraft, religious strife, famine and starvation.  

Against this dramatic backdrop, set in the fictional town of Kingsbridge are the intertwined lives of Tom the itinerant master builder, Ellen the mysterious outlaw, Aliena the resilient noblewoman, Jack the remarkable artist and Philip the devout prior of Kingsbridge. The author skillfully weaves a story of love, ambition, betrayal, revenge, anarchy and power with the construction of the cathedral at the beating heart of it. The paths of the protagonists diverge through four decades marred by a changing political and social landscape and petty internal church politics which not only affects the progress of the cathedral (and in turn the town) but also the fortunes of the characters invested in it. At its crux, Pillars of the Earth is the ultimate struggle between good and evil. Although the novel is a work of fiction, it integrates itself nicely into the fabric of some real-life characters and incidents from history such as the sinking of the White Ship, King Stephen at the battle of Lincoln and the murder of Archbishop of Canterbury Thomas Becket. The novel shines for the medieval canvas against which the story is set, the well-thought out multiple-themed plots, the brisk pace and the well-etched out characters.  

My favourite character in this novel is Prior Philip who is essentially one of the 'pillars' of the story. The shrewd yet benevolent monk goes against all odds to fulfil his lifelong mission. Jack's metamorphosis from a strange, awkward and reclusive child to an intelligent, talented and well-respected member of society is heartwarming. In an era of crippling misogyny, it felt gratifying to read about empowered women such as Ellen who lives life on her own terms and the feisty Aliena who keeps getting up after being dealt blow after blow. Their courage, conviction and hope makes them remarkable characters. On the other hand, some of the villains (especially William Hamleigh) are so gratuitously wicked that you feel like reaching into the book and wringing their necks! But there is no outright black or white when it comes to the characters; there is a bit of grey in all of them. Out of all the characters, I felt like Martha received the short end of the stick and her story arc could have been better completed. 

You may wonder how an almost 1000-page novel with the unlikely subject of a cathedral at its spine could possibly be that interesting. Paradoxically, Pillars of the Earth is the most popular book by Ken Follett and has amassed cult following since its release. What is amazing about Pillars of the Earth is that it recreates, quite vividly, the entire life of a fictional village and the people who live there. The story is so rich and the characters are so real that you feel like you know the place and the people as intimately as if you yourself were living there in the Middle Ages. It is curious, captivating and terrifying all at the same time! With his flair for writing, the author makes every one of those pages worth turning over. Not to mention, the medieval period is so far removed from our own time and age which in itself makes for absorbing reading. If you ever felt that the world you are living in right now is cause for complaint, I suggest you read this novel. It will surely change your perception! 

A word of caution though: keeping in mind the brutal life during the Middle ages, there are some graphic depictions of violence, rape, incest, executions and war featured in the novel which can be deeply distressing to some.  
Pillars of the Earth is a spell-binding historical saga of incredible breadth and intensity. Some books have the quality of enriching your life and this is definitely one of them. This novel is a must-read especially for fans of historical fiction. 

My rating for this book

World Without End 
World Without End was published in 2007 and is the second novel in the Kingsbridge series following the immensely popular Pillars of the Earth. 

The prodigious sequel to Pillars of the Earth is set in the now-prosperous fictional town of Kingsbridge in England two centuries later. The descendants of the main characters of Pillars of the Earth tell the new story of Kingsbridge and its inhabitants.
The story opens with the introduction to five children: Gwenda, Merthin, Ralph, Philemon, and Caris. With distinct social, economic, and ancestral ties to Kingsbridge, they are the main protagonists of the novel. After witnessing a grisly incident involving a knight in the forest, their lives are forever intertwined. The narrative pursue the children as they grow into adults and traces their loves and losses, hopes and dreams, despair and suffering as they grow older. 

Caris, hails from a prosperous family and from a young age is fiercely independent and strong-willed. Being somewhat of a rebel, she stands against the norms put forth by an aggressively patriarchal society. She also shows a keen interest in healing. Merthin and Ralph are from an aristocratic family that has fallen on hard times. The brothers are starkly different in disposition with Merthin being honourable, intelligent and enterprising and Ralph being ambitious, cruel and vindictive. Gwenda, the peasant girl, quickly befriends Caris and with her quick wits, finds her way out of most unfortunate situations she frequently finds herself in. 

The priory of Kingsbridge is once again integral to the story but with the addition of a nunnery which adds another dimension to the internal politics of the church and further highlights the striking issue of gender inequality at the time. The priory is under the control of the wildly egocentric and power hungry prior of Kingsbridge Godwyn with his conniving sidekick Philemon. The cathedral and the priory are again at the center of a web of deceit, love, greed, ambition and revenge. 

Set in the fourteenth century, the fascinating plot takes on relevant subjects such as the Great Famine, which results in crop failure and starvation for many peasants, the Peasants Revolt against the oppressing overlords, evolution of a guild system within towns, the Black Death and the beginning of the hundred years war. The town of Kingsbridge serves as a microcosm for the Black Death, the most terrible plague ever to affect the human race, wiping out roughly 60% of Europe’s population at the time. The plague transforms the lives of the people of Kingsbridge and brings about a revolution in medical thinking and practices by replacing traditional superstition-based remedies with evidence-based therapies. Follett has weaved into his vast tapestry, his cast of extraordinary characters who find themselves in the crossfire between conservative ways and progressive thinking. 
For me the best character in World Without End is Merthin. With his intelligence, skill and vision, he is strongly reminiscent of Jack from Pillars of the Earth. Caris is modelled on Aliena but she is far more complex, frustrating at times yet heroic nevertheless. I could empathize with her most of the time but not always understand her. Gwenda and Lady Philippa are two other characters that I was rooting for throughout the novel. The worst characters are Ralph, Godwyn and Philemon. Ralph is a watered down version of the despicable William Hamleigh. In comparison to Prior Philip, Godwyn and Philemon, the two religious figures in this novel are disappointingly one-dimensional. In general, I like how the author puts the swarm of subplots to rest but I was sorely disappointed with how abruptly Philemon’s fate is dealt with. On the subject of characters, something else I wondered about was the character of Merthin's ex-flame turned nun Elizabeth. Vengeance and pettiness could still have made her a quietly formidable opponent to Caris but she was abruptly dropped from the story.

This sure feels like a ‘book without end’ (it is that long!) and is depressing for the most part but it is a gem nonetheless. Much like its predecessor, it makes for compulsive reading.  

My rating for this book 

A Column of Fire 
Published in 2017, A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge Series, and serves as a sequel to 1989's The Pillars of the Earth and 2007's World Without End. The novel races ahead a couple of centuries in time to the Elizabethan era.

The last instalment of the Kingsbridge series operates on a grander scale and casts a much wider net of scope than its predecessors. It tackles the heavy subject of Protestant reformation and the impact of religious wars on European politics and social life during the 16th century where religious persecution, political instability, multiple coups, espionage and bloody civil war marked the era as one of the most turbulent and revolutionary times in history.
The plot opens in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge by introducing to the reader three prosperous families who represent the main religious ideologies in the English society of the time. The Fitzgeralds are an Ultra-Catholic family, who prosper under Catholic Queen Mary Tudor. Craving influence and respect in society, they marry their daughter into nobility. In stark contrast are the Puritan Cobleys, who covertly defy the law at great personal risk by conducting Protestant services in secret. Caught in a precarious balancing act are the more pragmatic Willards who are nominal Catholics under Mary, but who are willing to turn Protestant once Queen Mary’s half-sister, the more tolerant Elizabeth ascends the throne.
Under Queen Mary’s rule, Protestants are marked as heretics and mercilessly burned at the stake as a warning to the errant coterie to return to the fold of the “true” faith. But the Queen grossly underestimates the Protestants’ tenacity and their willingness to die for the cause. Another source of resentment stems from the Catholics taking advantage of the laws and forming alliances with unsavoury priests to marginalize those whose beliefs don't align with them. In England, this kind of religious persecution sets in motion a tidal wave of change with the need for a more tolerant monarch who will not punish people for their religious beliefs.

The novel covers some of significant events in European history during the 16 and early part of the 17th century including the death of Queen Mary, the accession of Elizabeth I, loss of Calais to France, French wars of religion between the Catholics and Huguenots, excommunication of Elizabeth I by the Pope, St. Bartholomew’s Day massacre, execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, the fall of the Spanish Armada, accession of King James and the gunpowder plot. 
In a work of historical fiction, Ken Follett masterfully brings to life an entourage of colorful fictional characters to represent prominent real-life historical figures. There is Ned Willard, a top aide of Queen Elizabeth; Rollo Fitzgerald, the staunch supporter of Mary Tudor Queen of England; Alison McKay, lady-in-waiting to Mary Stuart Queen of Scots and Pierre Aumande, the right-hand man of the Duke of Guise. Two other important fictional characters, the idealistic Protestant Sylvie Palot versus devout Catholic Margery Fitzgerald represent the clash over doctrine that was the root of all conflict at the time.

The author takes the main protagonist, Ned Willard on a monumental journey from the prosperous town of Kingsbridge to young Princess Elizabeth’s palace to the bloodstained streets of Paris to the Channel during an epic naval battle. While doing this, he weaves parallel narratives involving the other prominent characters scattered across London, Paris, Seville, Geneva, Antwerp, Scotland and the Caribbean, as they cross paths with each other and their actions end up inextricably linking their destinies together.  
Ken Follett’s meticulous attention to detail and historical research in this novel is outstanding. The vivid descriptions, evocative language and the manner in which the plot comes together linking the various characters spread across different countries seamlessly help keep the reader invested in the novel. The author's cast of characters are as always, multifaceted and complex. 

My favourite character in Column of Fire is definitely Ned Willard. And although in general, I love the way Follett writes women characters (a lot of authors should take notes from him!), the two main characters of Sylvie and Margery pale in comparison to Aliena from Pillars of the Earth and Caris from World Without End. But given the vast scope of the book, it is understandable that less attention has been given to character development in this book compared to its predecessors and so the familiar connection to Kingsbridge and its inhabitants is missing. 

My rating for this book is

Ken Follett is a phenomenal story-teller and in a short span of time has become one of my favourite authors. I have read 11 of his novels so far (and have loved all but one). I'm determined to read everything he has written! He painstakingly does his research, develops great storylines that keep the readers guessing and pays a lot of attention to small details. He has a straight-forward and unpretentious approach towards writing with a focus on substance over style. His characters have so much soul and depth that most often than not, they manage to strike an emotional cord with the reader. I absolutely love how his women characters are always strong and resourceful, (refreshingly, more so than the men!). I thoroughly enjoyed reading his Century trilogy and I enjoyed the Kingsbridge series just as much, if not more. No matter what the genre, his recurring themes of star-crossed lovers, diabolical villains and delayed comeuppance definitely works for me! 

I hope you enjoyed this book review. Have you read the Kingsbridge series by Ken Follett? Please leave a comment to let me know



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