Ken Follett has carved out quite a name for himself penning great espionage thrillers; the rare kind of airport novel that are a notch above the rest and worth re-reading. The mass paperback market is the territory of such personages as Robert Ludlum, John Grisham, Tom Clancy and Danielle Steele. Follett inclusion in this list would not merit surprise. But future times will not remember Follett’s Eye of the Needle or The Key to Rebecca as much as they remember his historical epic The Pillars of the Earth. Vast in scope and populated with tremendous characters who encompassed every vice and virtue known to man, Pillars transformed Follett from a purveyor of cheap thrills into a mature writer who could craft a thousand page epic that was as riveting as any of the paperback thrillers he wrote.
Eighteen years have passed since Follett’s magnum opus; years he spent writing fiction, which, while good, would be forgotten in a generation. World Without End, however is a different kettle of fish. I felt it inferior to Pillars, but that is in no way a criticism, considering how good Pillars was. The book is a sequel of sorts to Pillars; it takes place in the same village and the descendants of the Pillars protagonists feature prominently. The priory of Kingsbridge is home once again to the evil machinations and virtuous enterprise of rich and diverse characters.
Our hero Merthin, is an architect nursing grand ambition, great ingenuity and a seemingly hopeless love for the plucky and spirited Caris. Caris is an absolute rebel, and flouts almost every societal rule espoused by fourteenth century England. She is a woman before her time, torn by her desire for independence and her love for architect boy. She also dabbles in medicine, despises authority and her religious beliefs are heretical to the point of atheism. Our villains include Ralph, Merthin’s headstrong, bullying brother whose primary passions are fighting and philandering, Godwyn the stubborn prior whose purpose it is to thwart any and all plans with a semblance of sensibility and Philemon, his sycophantic lieutenant who’s got a severe case of kleptomania. There are a lot more peripheral characters, but Follett does them justice by fleshing them out, giving them significant roles and making sure they contribute to the overall plot. Against the backdrop of the Black Death and the Hundred Years War, Follett does a masterful job of crafting a vast story spanning many decades. As with most epics, one expects that good will triumph and the gallivanting hero will land the woman of his dreams; but the author manages to keep the element of suspense alive. Mostly, Merthin’s and Caris’ plans are frustrated by mere pigheaded authority, obstinacy, and the superstitions of those in power. Independently, they manage to make enemies of almost everybody who has a say in the running of Kingsbridge and only reason, and their popularity among the more sensible locals will help them in their causes. This book has it all: politics, dark secrets, conspiracies, steamy scenes aplenty, undiluted evil and virtue pure as the driven snow. It was a time when men were real men, women were real women and let us say nothing of Alpha Centuari.
I’d been reading Connie Willis’ Hugo winner The Doomsday Book at the same time I was reading this. Both novels deal with fourteenth Century practices and prevailing social mores in some detail, and the important lesson to be taken away from their perusal is this: the fourteenth century absolutely blows. Not only was there no internet, but also the living conditions were terrible, the people were absolutely filthy, superstitious to the point of idiocy and the plague didn’t help matters any. The church’s near-absolute governance over the people’s day-to-day lives coupled with their absolute ignorance in many matters further exacerbated an already terrible situation. The feudal system and droit du seigneur prevailed; the feudal serfs had about as many rights as the sheep and women had less. Depressing times to live in, but a great backdrop for storytelling. Witness the success of Braveheart, The Seventh Seal & Monty Python and the Holy Grail.
Ultimately, World Without End is pure escapist pleasure; a rich tapestry of enormous proportions woven together by an author at the top of his game. He gives you characters that you can identify with and feel strongly about and forces them into crunch situations that bring out the best and the worst in them. In some ways, both Pillars of the Earth and World without End are an allegory of the eternal fight between reason and ignorance in a world that seems to elect its leaders based on the Dilbert Principle.