After a lengthy hiatus Ken Follett returns to the series with a second epic tome, (if you pardon the pun) building on the Kingsbridge Cathedral theme laid out in Pillars of the Earth. It is now the mid-1300s, two centuries after Tom Builder, Jack, Aliena, and Prior Phillip helped shape this community. Their presence is felt through ancestral breadcrumbs and mentioned throughout the complex narrative that seeks to breathe new life into Kingsbridge. The narrative develops early with the emergence of four children in the forest: Gwenda, Merthin, Philemon, and Caris. These four come from their distinct social, economic, and ancestral ties to Kingsbridgeons of old, but whose appearance will prove important throughout the book. While hiding, the children witness the torture of a knight, Thomas Langley, who is able to escape, but not before burying a secret document, which might be the reason he has been chased and tortured. Langley seeks to enter the priory and become a monk, where he will be protected from the outside world and able to devote himself to a new life. With the Cathedral casting a daunting shadow on the town, the economic stability of Kingsbridge seems less stable, as the Fleece Fair may suffer without a new bridge to transport much needed items from outside. The town of Shiring might profit, though locals are not yet ready to admit defeat and put off any construction for the time being. That gamble is foreboding, as there is chaos when the bridge does collapse and hundreds are caught on it, killing them in various forms. The Priory must take action, but the need for a new Prior takes precedence. Politics meets religion in this election as barters and bribes see young Godwyn assume the role, whose iron-fist is supported by his controlling mother. The new bridge commences, but not only after thorough examination and potential architectural analysis is done. Saving a few coins over stability becomes a strong issue, though the symbolic nature of the bridge, connecting economic stability to the town that seeks to link itself to new life, becomes apparent throughout the narrative. As time passes, those aforementioned children grow as well, finding themselves looking to take on trades or turn to the Church for solace. It is here that the drama of the novel builds and social interactions turn to lust and sexual dominance. Forbidden love is tested and sexual control is exerted, sometimes against the will of one participant. Much is asked about that document that Thomas Langley hid away, but there is more on the horizon to keep the locals concerned. After a time away, Merthin returns with an ominous gift from abroad, leaving Kingsbridge under the cloud of plague. No one is entirely safe and, like the bridge, many perish. Families are decimated and yet Prior Godwyn espouses that this is an Act of God, forcing some to swallow the hard pill of religious retribution. Follett illustrates this well throughout, as the sobering clash of complete devotion to God is weighted against the early understanding of disease transmission. Will prayer save you, or might precautions prevent infection? Even as Kingsbridge suffers, the Cathedral stands firm, though there is a need to revisit its foundations, at least in part. The symbolism of a renewed strengthening of part of its body parallels nicely with the constant rejuvenation of the populace and those who can trace their ancestral lines from the early founders of the town. Plague and general injury fuels a discussion about building a new hospital to treat the injured in one location and isolate those who are contagious in another, though this becomes a new religious and political discussion. What awaits Kingsbridge on the horizon is anyone’s guess, but there is surely no stagnancy when it comes to dramatic development, as scores of plots emerge throughout. Follett has emerged to develop another stunning piece that adds to the drama of his opening novel, yet leaves much room for further development, answered with the most recent (and final?) instalment in the Kingsbridge saga. Fans of Pillars will likely enjoy this piece, though there is still a need for patience and determination to sift through a much more character-developing based piece, which sees a generational development, rather than that of a stone structure. Highly recommended for those who have time and interest in a slowly evolving narrative.
After admitting that he was out of his comfort zone with the opening novel, Follett continues tilling the soil with this an amazing series. Equally as epic in its development and final delivery, Follett is forced to use scores of characters to flesh out the story he wishes to present. Moving the story ahead two centuries, the characters will all differ from those found in Pillars, though the lineage that is mentioned and some of the mere characteristics of those featured herein allows the reader to feel a strong connection to all involved. Certainly, there will be some names who grace the story throughout and others who play their smaller roles to support, though the thread is not lost in the narrative. The four children who emerge from the beginning all branch out and develop their own lives, but it is impossible for the reader not to trace their growth (physical, emotional, and social) through the time period of this story. Love, death, rape, and domination all feature significantly and no character is kept completely protected from these themes. While Kingsbridge Cathedral stands strong in the background, readers are able to draw parallels between its development and the new architectural piece, the Bridge, that keeps all aspects of the town occupied. Politics seeps in as council and the Priory weigh in on the issue, forcing the higher-ups to also issue their own decrees. The symbolism of the experience is not lost on the attentive reader, though the political and economic arguments differ slightly. Kingsbridge is no longer a speck on the map, though it is still a developing community, receiving scant attention at times. As plague swept across the continent, Kingsbridge must suffer alone and find its own footing, but exemplifies resilience in the face of disaster. Follett is clear to instil these themes throughout, no matter the narrative twists presented. Again, some have criticised the book for being too long or too detailed, going so far as to inject the words “thick” and “monotonous” into their comments. I acknowledge these issues, but counter that this is not the type of novel that can be both rich and brief. Follett has surely taken a massive chunk and must process it, leaving only the most dedicated to synthesise it. There is no shame in admitting that the book is not for everyone, but those who are able to patiently remain enthralled, many gifts shall be granted. Follett has a purpose for taking the reader on this journey, particularly since he did such a wonderful job with the opening novel. I applaud that this is not a novel meant to appeal to the masses, for there seems to be an inherent dedication required before committing to the journey back to Kingsbridge. There is still much to be seen and more generations to come, their lives shaped by the firmly rooted cathedral, priory, bridge, and so much more. Follett has so much to offer and the journey is one that has me extremely excited.
Kudos, Mr. Follett, for returning to this piece and building on its greatness. I am pleased to have been able to come back and read this again, fulfilling a reading challenge requirement, but also reminding myself why I love this type of story.
This book fulfills Equinox I (A Book for All Seasons) Book Challenge for Topic #1: A Book set 500+ Years Ago
A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons