The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
I have wanted to read this book for a long time, but have always been put off by just how darn long it is. And it is long, about 970 pages. However, this year I decided to take the plunge.
When bestselling thriller writer Ken Follett brought out his latest book in 1989, it must have been met with some surprise - previously he'd written relatively short 20th century thrillers, and then suddenly came out with a thousand page historical epic. It shows his success however, because now he's mostly known for his historical fiction. Before reading this, I'd only read his World War Two thriller novel, The Eye of the Needle (which was excellent).
The Pillars of the Earth is set over a 40-50 year period in the 12th century, in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. This is a popular period in history, being the period of more or less civil war between King Stephen and Empress Maud, with each competing for the throne. The story this tells is against this backdrop, but for the most part is a more localised story, of one man's quest to build the greatest cathedral in the world. Most of the characters are those around Tom Builder, his family, relatives, friends and enemies. Throughout it all there's also the monk Philip, who has equal claim to being the main character. In truth though, there's at least 10 main characters - it is that type of book.
The author does a great job of intertwining the larger historical events of the time with the story of Tom, Philip and Kingsbridge - to say more would be spoilerish, though if you know your history from this period, you can probably make some educated guesses. The setting is much more than a historical backdrop, and the links do not feel at all contrived. When I started out reading this, I was somewhat sceptical that the story centred around a fictional place - why not make it about the building of a real cathedral - Salisbury maybe? However I realise now that fictional Kingsbridge was a sensible choice, giving the author licence to tell the story he wanted, surrounded by history but not constrained by it.
I really enjoyed this book. It isn't without its flaws - it has some rather too graphic violence for my liking, particularly against women, it is probably a tad too long, and there's no deep insight or hugely rounded characters; sometimes you can feel yourself being manipulated to care about the characters at the appropriate moment, to keep turning the pages etc. There's no really deep insights, just a lot of basic - and often base - human nature. All of this doesn't stop it being a great, page-turning read however.