The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

09 Jun

LongBookThe 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.


Posted by on 09/06/2016 in Architecture, Fiction


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25 responses to “The Pillars of the Earth – Ken Follett

  1. Lucy

    09/06/2016 at 13:38

    I saw this on telly, it had Lovejoy and President Snow in it and Lovejoy was really horrible. World Without End is the other Follet I only know through TV (full-on black deatharama), and is another one of those period things that makes me think as much as I’d love to spend all day twirling a sword and paddling in rivers and dancing about fires, I’m happier living now with a lower chance of murder and disease when popping to the shop.


    • Ste J

      09/06/2016 at 13:46

      World Without End is the sequel to this one and I will get to it after a suitably long interval although I hear it isn’t as good and no epic bodycount will be able change that I expect. Imagine dodging all the outlaws and plague and stuff only to find out that Pot Noodles haven’t been invented yet, no wonder it is often called the Dark Ages…


  2. Jill Weatherholt

    09/06/2016 at 13:49

    I’m all for cutting back on the violence…I can turn on the local news for that. Thanks for a great review, Ste J!


    • Ste J

      09/06/2016 at 13:52

      The news is just a grim series of horribleness these days which seems less and less impartial every year. Where the balance and the good stories!?

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Liz

    09/06/2016 at 15:53

    I remember this book being particularly good on stone masonry. I have always been fascinated with how epic buildings such as cathedrals and castles were built given the times, the tools and know-how available. I am glad this aspect shine out for you too. As for the rest, well I am currently enjoying Game of Thrones in audio format and completely agree that PotE is no match overall.


    • Ste J

      09/06/2016 at 22:15

      Architecture is a wonderful art, I enjoy learning about eight distribution and so on, it is so fascinating. Game of Thrones is certainly more visceral but the feeling that any moment could be the last with a character is a great hook and one that more TV shows should follow as most seem too predicable which takes away a lot of the tension. You have reminded me that I need to finish a review on my favourite ever TV show, cheers!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. renxkyoko

    09/06/2016 at 18:05

    Believe it or not, I’ve never watched a single episode of Game of Thrones. I used to like period shows ( never , ever books ), but , then one day, I got to read journals and chonicles about real life during the Medieval Period, and learned the horrible hygiene practices ( or lack therof ) of that period…… I jus tcan’t erase them off my practical, down to earth imagination…. the rotting teeth, that… oh, never mind. lol


    • Ste J

      09/06/2016 at 22:05

      I think it was Queen Elizabeth (the first) who said ‘I have a bath once a month, even if I don’t need one’. Game of Thrones is an entertaining show, not worth the hype it gets but a worthwhile watch if you find yourself with time on your hands.


  5. clarepooley33

    09/06/2016 at 23:11

    Thanks for the great, in-depth review Ste. I haven’t watched Game of Thrones either and I’m not sure that I’m missing anything! I’m also not too sure that Pillars of the Earth is for me either. I have been reminded of a trilogy I read years ago that includes Medieval cathedral building – Edith Pargeter’s ‘The Heaven Tree’ trilogy. I remember being quite taken over by it.


    • Ste J

      10/06/2016 at 10:21

      I thought I recognised the name, a quick search solved that, her Cadfael pseudonym possibly coming up in a pub quiz at some point. A few of the plot points sound similar to Pillars of the earth so I will probably leave it for a while but when my cathedral lust returns I will give them a look. GoT is very overrated although it has gotten better this season in terms of tightness to the plot but overall it’s not classic must watch TV.

      Liked by 1 person

  6. shadowoperator

    10/06/2016 at 16:29

    Do you happen to know how much of this actual story is really true? I mean, how much of it is precisely based on a real story (for example, I don’t think “Aliena” would have been a real name during the Middle Ages). Also, here’s a fun fact about cathedrals that you might not have heard–about 50 years back or so, they became concerned that the increased traffic noises and vibrations in London might cause the rotunda at the top of St. Paul’s Cathedral to fall in, so they went inside to find out how it was constructed. Imagine their surprise when they found a huge chain going all the way around it, meant to keep it from collapsing from excess noise and vibrations! Of course, it was built long before such disturbances were a part of daily life, but the architect had anticipated, that long ago, that such a thing might be a danger to the construction, and had already provided for it!


    • Ste J

      12/06/2016 at 20:42

      I believe Aliena derives from the other side of Europe so it is possible that it could have been brought back as a name with returnees from the First Crusade. As for the actual story, it is mainly fiction, including Kingsbridge cathedral itself but is made up but the royal upheavals are true to life. I had no idea about the chain fact, a nice link if you excuse the pun! It is amazing how those builders thought about things and conquered ideas with simple yet clever techniques.


      • shadowoperator

        13/06/2016 at 01:32

        Thanks for the further info. Yes, it’s haunting my memory that perhaps it was Sir Christopher Wren who put the chain in the cathedral, though he may have been later. Anyway, that’s my best guess.


        • Ste J

          13/06/2016 at 19:42

          I believe it was that man and if not, then I say why not as he is one of the few architects I can refer to with some certainty.


  7. shoshibookblog

    11/06/2016 at 09:36

    I completely agree – I read this book last year but didn’t review it because I try to only write about the books that I really loved. It’s a fun read, but only if you’re willing to ignore the flaws and concentrate on the architecture and ambition!


    • Ste J

      12/06/2016 at 20:34

      I should have skipped more of it but it’s a shame to do so when the review needs to be indepth enough to be balanced. I think you should throw us a curve ball one day with a book you absolutely loathe.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. Letizia

    11/06/2016 at 18:26

    I read this ages ago and remember really liking the architecture aspect and thinking about how a town was centered around the building of a cathedral (and, as you say, the sacred and the non-sacred). And the sex scenes, so terrible, you have to laugh!


    • Ste J

      12/06/2016 at 20:52

      Apparently there is plenty of bad sex in the sequel as well, at least his time I will know to skip them. looking at some aerial shots of cathedrals cities will be occupying me later this evening.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. Andrea Stephenson

    15/06/2016 at 21:50

    This is one of those books that I probably should read, but have no desire to actually do it, so thanks for the cheat’s guide 🙂


    • Ste J

      16/06/2016 at 16:28

      You aren’t missing too much, the best bits are the architecture so it is probably better to find a book on said subject instead and read that.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Maniparna Sengupta Majumder

    16/06/2016 at 16:02

    A predictable plot is not something desirable enough, but I think a book resembling GoT is worth a read 😀 A nice, honest review. I’m adding it to be TBR list… 🙂


    • Ste J

      16/06/2016 at 16:35

      I think Game of Thrones has the edge in this case, although I am more familiar with the TV show which is getting very good this season.

      Liked by 1 person

  11. Jilanne Hoffmann

    18/06/2016 at 17:17

    Not sure this one’s for me. I think I’ll stick with Eco.


    • Ste J

      28/06/2016 at 18:55

      Yes Eco all the way! Finding somebody with that literary ability and amount of study about various subjects is a rare thing and Eco was a colossus in his field!

      Liked by 1 person


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