The Pillars of the Earth [Book Review]

Set in the turbulent times of twelfth-century England when civil war, famine, religious strife and battles over royal succession tore lives and families apart, The Pillars of the Earth tells the story of the building of a magnificent cathedral.

Against this richly imagined backdrop, filled with intrigue and treachery, Ken Follett draws the reader irresistibly into a wonderful epic of family drama, violent conflict and unswerving ambition. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, the dreams, labours and loves of his characters come vividly to life. The Pillars of the Earth is, without doubt, a masterpiece – and has proved to be one of the most popular books of our time.

Summary from Goodreads

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

Date Read: 8/8/19
Rating: 3.5 stars
Published: 10/1989

*This review contains spoilers, though I did my best to still keep them vague.*

Overall, I really enjoyed reading this one. As I’ve mentioned in some previous posts, I’ve been in a reading slump and this so far has done the best to pull me out of it. I mean, 900 pages (1500 in ebook form!) is no small feat, plus I’ve already started the next book in the series. And after my first loan expiring back in April, I got through over 90% of this book in about a week. So. I do appreciate it for that.

However… there were definitely some negatives about this book: The characters, the story, and the historical accuracy (that sounds like the entire book, but I promise it’s not!).

The characters are really not developed or differentiated. If someone hadn’t been mentioned in a while, I forgot who they were when they were brought up again. Maybe I shouldn’t be reading other reviews before/as I’m writing mine, as they’ve maybe tainted my view of this book, but I did read one that made a very good point – the bad characters are very bad, ugly, evil, no-good, horrible scumbags, whereas the good characters beautiful, genius, good, virtuous, and well-loved. It’s very two dimensional/black and white, minus a very few characters.

The story itself was more or less the same thing repeated over and over:

Church stuff >bad guy does something bad > church people are smart and virtuous and win over bad guy > monastery stuff > rinse and repeat.

Like, it did work for me to keep me interested and keep the story moving, but at the same time, it really was just the same thing repeated several times, until finally the bad guys were finally put in their place (speaking of, maybe death and destitution shouldn’t be the only possible outcomes for bad guys?).

Another point that my friend brought up to me as I was explaining the book to her was the language. There are no thys, thous, or other words that might make you think it was set in the middle ages. Obviously it needs to be written in readable English for people to actually read it, rather than Olde English, but the use of the language is so modern it really doesn’t work, in hindsight.

Along with the language, the culture and treatment of women especially seems off for the time period. Like yes, there are some examples of what may be expected – paying a woman half of what you would a man for the same goods (if at all), expecting them to be subservient and obedient, etc. But most of the main women are really outside the norm. Aleina is allowed to reject a man her father had already agreed to have marry her, and becomes an incredible wealthy trader several times over. Ellen never submits to any other character, even her husband. A female character towards the end becomes a master craftsman (basically) with absolutely no objection from any characters around her, all while remaining a single woman well into her 20’s. Normal now, not so then.

While I basically sound like I’m complaining and did not like the book, I actually did. One of my favorite things about it was the architectural detail, and the effort it took to build something like that back then. I mean, some of these moments went on a little long, but as a fan of older architecture (and architecture in general), I loved imagining how beautiful some of these monasteries were. Unfortunately the Kingsbridge cathedral in this book is fictional, but the real ones it was based on are so beautiful (seriously, just Google Salisbury and/or Saint Dennis cathedrals)!

So basically, this book didn’t suck, but I sound like I thought it did. The characters could have used some individuality, the story could have used some variety, and they should have been talking and acting more like people who lived in the 12th century, not the 21st. But like any good (imho) historical fiction, there was some really, really great imagery, and even though I probably didn’t read more than ~500 pages in July, it kept me invested enough to get through all 1500 e-pages in about a week. Clearly, it isn’t a bad book!


You may like The Pillars of the Earth if you enjoyed:

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Have you read The Pillars of the Earth? What did you think? What is your favorite type of historical fiction?

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