“The Pillars of the Earth” by Ken Follett

Book Review

An intricately woven narrative of the hardship, resistance, and love experienced by a community of people living under the shadow of the construction of a gothic cathedral. 

Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth was published in 1989 and is the first book of the Kingsbridge Series. It centers on the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, during the 12th century. Facing starvation, Tom Builder, a mason, and his family, wander through several towns inquiring after available work until he stumbles upon Kingsbridge village and priory. A fortunate accident leaves the cathedral in shambles, and his services are now required. With the determination of the prior, an earnest and devout monk named Philip, Tom sets to work building his dream cathedral. The story continues after Tom is succeeded by his stepson, Jack. Along the way they face challenges as they fight for the right to use local resources, gain funding to support its construction, and prevent the ruthless plots of the local clergy and noblemen who fight for power at any cost. 

I haven’t read a story this long since I re-read J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings last year, which made it seem pretty daunting when I decided to pick it up. Now that I’ve completed it, I can confidently write that Ken Follett succeeds in crafting a story that makes many promises at the beginning but slowly and surely delivers on each one in an incredibly satisfying way. He introduces his characters at a steady pace, and manages to reveal their innermost desires and aspirations in such a way that drives readers to continue reading in order to discover what will become of them. I couldn’t help but sympathize with Tom and Prior Philip’s dream to build a cathedral, with Aliena’s desire to be rid of her traumas and regain her birthright, and with Jack’s curiosity about his biological father and his longing to live out a traditional family life. In the same way, Follett’s writing rallies you against the antagonists: the power-grabbing and self-righteous Bishop Waleran, and the violent, insecure Earl William Hamleigh. 

Follett’s writing is easy to follow and he succeeds in balancing the multiple POV head-hopping with the pacing. This is the first memorable story I’ve read in which I saw through the eyes of the antagonists. There were several moments during the story, in particular from William Hamleigh’s point-of-view, where I felt uncomfortable and frustrated and had to put the book down for a short time to take a break. I want to be clear that I don’t consider this a flaw of the book, because it made me hate the antagonists even more. Seeing through their eyes, reading their thoughts, their justifications, only fanned the flames of my disgust towards them, investing me further in the story and spurring me on to read more as I hoped for eventual justice on behalf of the protagonists. 

Pillars threw me back into the historical fiction genre after a long hiatus, and it reminded me of all the fascinating aspects this genre brings to literature. This book will undoubtedly spark your interest in the architectural shift from the Romanesque to the Gothic style, the civil war in England and Normandy between 1138 and 1153, and the social customs and practices of the clergy, nobility, and lay people in medieval England. It will shed light on a time when law and justice was difficult to manage, and when the Church played a large, yet subtle and sometimes manipulative, part in government affairs. Its immersiveness in the time period stands as one of the strongest points of this book. 

I’m giving this book 4 out of 5 stars because overall I thoroughly enjoyed it. The distinct cast of characters, intricacy of the plot, and payoffs at the end made it such an enjoyable read. I’m not giving it the full five stars due to its slow pacing at certain points, which found me wishing the point-of-views would switch or the descriptive exposition could be skipped. However, I easily recommend this to other readers who are looking for a heavy-hitter in the historical fiction vein or who are ready to sit down with a cast of characters who will capture your heart and keep you fully invested in their fates.