My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I started reading Pillars of Earth with a gross misunderstanding that it was a fantasy novel. I’m typically not a fan of flaming sword, wizards and dragon fantasy so the lack of those elements were perfect for me. I thought it was just one of those more subtle fantasy books. Despite the lack of magic, I still thought Pillars was a fantasy novel — maybe it was all the monks and other clerics in the story.
When I read the back cover of the book, where it mentioned that the novel spanned centuries, I wondered how Follett is going to make us care about all the newer characters later on. Maybe the centuries was a hyperbole, but the novel does span decades, jumping from one generation to the next, yet still making each new character worth caring about. Reading about the birth of characters, their childhood, their adolescence, their first loves, their transformation into an adult life really made me feel a sense of attachment.
Another thing that made the book so engaging and such a page turner toward the later half was that antagonists just keep getting more and more evil. I kept thinking that each chapter would bring some sort of redeeming quality to some of the more malicious characters, but the further I got into the book, the worse and worse they became.
A lot of the story revolves around the building of a cathedral and the greed and pride of men. Considering that a few of the main characters are masons and builders, there’s bound to be some talk about architecture. There’s lots. Some chapters contain page after page of rich descriptions of arches, ribbing, buttresses, and all sorts of architecture-porn. For those not interested in these things, it gets boring. Luckily, I skimmed through those passages without wasting too much time on them and I still felt like I read a coherent story. Readers more interested in the change from Romanesque to Gothic architecture may find those passages worth spending time on, but not me.
Before reading Pillars, I hadn’t given much thought about average life in the Middle Ages. Sure, we’ve all read the history books in school, but there wasn’t much of a story to relate to in those books. Follett, when he’s not getting side-tracked with talking about domes and arches, writes a convincing tale of just what it is to be a peasant working under the thumb of a lord and the economy of that time.
Even considering that the book is almost a thousand pages long, there’s a great deal of events packed into the story. Every time I thought things were finally turning for the better, something comes up and it gets worse. After the first half of the book, I just assumed that for every good that happens, something much worse is just around the corner. It got to the point where as I got closer to the end of the book, I wondered if I should just stop reading once things started working out again so that I wouldn’t risk getting upset about something negative that would happen after.
Despite that, I kept reading till the last page, which was kind of a chore. After the main story reached a conclusion, I was satisfied enough to put the book down, yet there were still about a hundred pages left. Those hundred pages tied up loose ends and what not, but they were definitely the weakest part of the book. Although I’m usually one who gets really upset about vague cliffhangers, things were resolved a little too neatly in this novel. It was just hard to believe in a novel where 90% of the time, something goes horribly wrong.
After I realized that most of Pillars of Earth was centered around a monk, a monastery, and Christianity in the Middle Ages, I feared that I would get fed up with all the religious references and stop reading. That never happened. I guess part of it was that I still erroneously thought of the book as a fantasy novel, and religion in fantasy is a lot easier to take than serious religion. Follett certainly did a wonderful job of showing how religion was intertwined in everyone’s regular life without relying too much on it to push the plot along.
The only complaint I have about the book is something that comes up when I’m reading other books based in this type of setting. Because the people are supposedly living in the Middle Ages, I expect them to speak a certain way. When they curse and use derogatory names for body-parts which we still use now, it’s a bit jarring because it sounds so modern. I’m no scholar about Medieval language, but I wish there were better words to use for those parts which don’t seem like such anachronisms.
If I had known from the beginning that Pillars of Earth was a historical fiction novel, I probably would have yawned and moved on to another book. Luckily for me, I didn’t realize my error until I was halfway through the book and by then, I was already hooked. It’s a long read, and yes the plot is similar to a soap opera drama, but it was definitely enjoyable.
There’s one part in the book, and readers who have gotten to the end will probably remember this, but I believe a character said, “The earl is already in the castle.” When I read that, I wanted to jump up, play some crazy electric guitar solo and shout, “F-yeah!”