The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of Philip, prior of Kingsbridge, a devout and resourceful monk driven to build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has known . . . of Tom, the mason who becomes his architect – a man divided in his soul . . . of the beautiful, elusive Lady Aliena, haunted by a secret shame . . . and of a struggle between good and evil that will turn church against state, and brother against brother.
Beginning with a grim scene of a hanging and a curse, the book is off to a flyer. Set in the 12th century this medieval saga will probably appeal to anybody who enjoys Game of Thrones. (based on the War of the Roses in the 15th century) with plenty of violence, sex, treachery, religion and politics as well as somebody saying ‘winter’s coming’ and a bit of soap opera thrown in for good measure.
Pillars is a beast of a book in terms of size and being from a thriller writer you can expect it to be pacy which it is for the most part, with pivotal events turning up regularly and plenty of struggles of various kinds along the way. It’s also a love letter to architecture and an interesting glimpse into the building of such majestic edifices which provide a great backdrop to which the storylines orbit around,
The reader is introduced to a world where security is a rare thing and mortality is a very real concern. Life is hard with so little freedom, being at the mercy of the powerful landowners, an odious bunch manoeuvring for their own gains. Everybody is vulnerable to the whims of these few for which loyalty is just the rumour of a concept. It’s for this reason that the book felt a little gruelling to begin with and not the read itself which is bestseller fare and isn’t a challenge to read but initially I cared for the characters wanted the best for them which of course didn’t happen.
After reading through several hundred pages, aspects of the plot were becoming predictable and in some parts a bit too repetitious. It was all a bit predictable, I found myself gauging the long-term rather than being concerned for the characters in the immediate pages and it wasn’t particularly challenging to guess correctly where the character arcs were going. I found I could appreciate the character’s journey better if I treated it as inevitable rather than waiting for something spectacular ro happen.
It felt vaguely cyclical at times for some characters – then again that is true through family generations in real life – but also events which were more jarring as it’s unoriginal to repeat the same things in the same book. The protagonists were a bit uninteresting as well, there wasn’t much to them, two-dimensional for the most part and once they were established they adhered rigidly to their values which was a shame, we needs a Gollum type figure to mix things up and keep things dramatic.
It’s by no means the masterpiece the cover claims. It seems every so often past events need to be incorporated into the text as a reminder, that sort of thing is just annoying, unless the plot is labyrinthine then you should rely on the intelligence of your readers to keep up and the plot wasn’t a particularly complex either and despite its length, it isn’t the sort of book that demands the remembering of key events. In fact the plot threads are introduced in a simple way and diverge and converge well with each other and won’t trouble the reader at all making the prompts a bit pointless.
The book could have done with editing in numerous ways, losing the padding, the terrible sex scenes and odd bit of animal cruelty would have helped. The violence similarly wasn’t something that was needed, we get that the world is cruel but some of the underlining of it could have been communicated in rumours or just implied without writing about a whole event. Whilst some scenes were needed, others were just there to presumably satiate the lust for a high body count that nobody really has. That being said without that sort of violence the bad guys could have descended into pantomime villains often seen on kid’s TV shows.
Like all bestsellers I did find myself reading a good amount of pages in each sitting and it is clear that a lot of effort has been put into it, especially tackling a book from a different genre to the author’s usual oeuvre and the reader will appreciate it and only the most pedantic won’t forgive the odd language or historical error. For all that though the further I read on the less I was moved by the tale, except for a brief sojourn into new cathedral building technique, some contrived plotting didn’t help either, although it did push the story on even if I was dubious about it.
Follett provides some basic theological content but this is simplistic when compared to Umberto Eco’s, The Name of the Rose and if you are after a read with a high body count then you may as well go for Game of Thrones. This seems to be a book that is light on everything even its often dark tone isn’t that bad, I think the problem is that the scope is too vast and the book would have been better suited to looking at fewer aspects of the times for a tighter and more focussed read.
Yet for all of that, Pillars does bring out the immense effort and time that was put into the cathedrals of Europe, magnificent accomplishments in any age, the techniques of construction and the surmounting of problems is simply explained and there is a good feeling to ye olde England as well. The clashing of the secular and the church have long been fascinating to this reader and the book does strangely seem topical in many aspects proving that we are doomed to repeat history until we take a proper stand.