Never, by Ken Follett

Nine stars

Ken Follett returns with another stunning novel, where political and social action are layered throughout. Follett proves that some stories require a slow and intricate delivery, which can take time and many pages. Three significant goings-on take place in different parts of the world, each with their own implications. As tensions rise and political actors demonstrate their power, all eyes turn to the US president and how she plans to handle the crises. What begins as a mistake with a drone strike soon mushrooms into a cataclysmic event. All eyes look to the two counties who can solve it, though they are are odds as well. A brilliant piece that had me on the edge of my seat throughout, proving that Ken Follett still has it.

The world is an extremely precarious place, as politics weave their way into every possible situation. The country of Chad, long known to be full of corruption, is at the heart of a political situation involving two intelligence agents who are seeking to rid the region of a ruthless terrorist group. While no one said it would be easy, what’s even more difficult is trying to ignore the ongoing romantic sentiments that have developed. Lives and reputations are on the line, though no one seems too worried quite yet.

A strong supporter of some less than democratic regimes in the area, China is keeping its eye on what has been going on, including a senior government official who hopes to climb the ranks of the Communist Party, leaving the old wing in his dust. However, it is a delicate balancing act just to get one’s views noticed, let alone herd by those with some power. As a situation in Chad leaves China feeling vulnerable, talk of retaliation against America begins, with an annoying cousin nation, North Korea, happy to play a role in the action.

The American president, Pauline Green, has been facing a great deal of backlash as the country’s first female POTUS, both from the people and within the Republican Party. She’s held them off as best she can, but wants to make a name for herself in whatever way possible. Unwilling to go to war over something that could be handled with diplomacy, Green works channels for peace after a gaffe in Africa sees the Chinese boiling with ire. Events domino and the blowback gets more and more troubling, leaving both sides unwilling to turn the other cheek. It’s time to test resolve, diplomacy, and nuclear arsenals, but who will blink first and become the ultimate aggressor?

As the world watches, two superpowers do the dance and use their proxies to lay the groundwork for what could be a third and cataclysmic world war. It’s now time to see how things will go, in hopes of finding a final solution. Otherwise, it will be the obliteration of millions, if not billions, of lives and an end to any possible civility. All this, culminating in an act that no one could have predicted. A brilliant piece by Ken Follett that left me gasping aloud on many occasion and begging for more of this sort of book.

Ken Follett returns with a piece that is both sensational in its delivery and devastatingly chilling in its plausible nature. Putting politics, regional skirmishes, and the art of diplomacy in the spotlight, he hints at how the dominoes could fall, leaving everyone grasping for a shred of sensible maneuvering in a time when one wrong move could lead to disaster. His three-pronged storytelling is masterful and left me in awe, as things slowly inched together in a tale that is as plausible as anything seen in the news today. All the actors are there, with their own flavourings, in a narrative that leaves the reader feeling on the front lines.

There are many who take up the role of protagonists in their own right, forcing me to look at the larger character pool. Follett develops his characters with great backstories and powerful personal growth, pushing them to blossom as the story unfolds. There are many whose lives receive some of the limelight and this helps add depth to the overall story for all to enjoy. Politicians, intelligence officers, and even every day citizens play their role to shape the narrative and keep the plot from being too easily revealed. Brilliant efforts by Follett make it all worthwhile.

I have never come across a book by Ken Follett that I did not truly adore. His detailed narrative builds up a story like no other, using surrounding situations and people’s personal views to shape how things will go. Strong characters are always a key part of the story and Follett never fails there either, using believable names and scenarios to make things click. Plot lines that work effectively help shape the larger story and keep the reader enthralled with all that is taking place, culminating in some of the tensest storytelling I have come across. I could not get enough of the story, its intricate detail, and the plausible nature of things, based on the world in which we live. As Follett mentions in the opening, just like the Great War, the next ‘great war’ could be fought because politicians could not stop the momentum of something they did not want themselves.

Kudos, Mr. Follett, for a sobering and stunning look at the political landscape of hate world today. I hope many of your dedicated fans will take some time to enjoy this piece and feel as strongly as I do about it.

The Evening and the Morning (Kingsbridge #0.1), by Ken Follett

Nine stars

There’s always something exciting when reading a book by Ken Follett, as the reader is subsumed with history, drama, and wonderful storytelling. Follett has done well with his Kingsbridge trilogy, so much so that he chose to add this, a prequel, to deliver context on some much-wondered happenings in the early stages. Set at the end of the Dark Ages, the story explores the lives of three key characters and how their interactions bring a community together over a period of time. While the world is slowly developing, there is much going on and societies are emerging with their own unique perspectives. Follett weaves a tale that is not only impactful, but offers series fans a remarkable treat and will have them rushing to re-read this epic series.

The Dark Ages are coming to an end in England, but that does not mean all is tranquil. With the Welsh and Vikings eyeing this jewel, no one is entirely safe, as the country is in flux. Chaos has taken over and many are left to fend for themselves. It’s 997 CE and a small English community awaits what will happen to them next.

Three distinct characters emerge, each with their own stories and hopes for the years to come. Edgar is a young boatbuilder, who lost the love of his life during a Viking raid. Ragna is a noblewoman who arrives from Normandy and seeks to make a new life for herself. Aldred is a young monk and hopes to make an ecclesiastical mark while setting up a monastery to help enrich the community. Each has a tale all their own, but their lives inch closer to being intertwined.

As the story progresses, the community of Dreng’s Ferry comes to life. Edgar tries to make a life for himself on unproductive farming land with two brothers, whose greatest worry is how they will survive being married to the same woman. Undeterred by the obstacles before him, Edgar makes a niche for himself and becomes a staple part of the community, earning the respect of those around him.

Ragna is from noble blood and finds herself in the community after she is married to one of the rich men. While she assumes that she will be able to rule alongside her husband, nothing could be further from the truth. Her husband’s brothers have other plans after his death, leaving Ragna with little as she seeks to stay afloat. With a burgeoning brood, Ragna suffers greatly at the hands of others. Her nobility means little to some, taking it so far as to make her a plaything and leave her to suffer, but Ragna refuses to be defeated. Rather, she does all she can to show her children that love and determination mean more than anything else.

Aldred is a lowly monk with high hopes for Dreng’s Ferry, seeking to make it a scholastic and religious centre in Europe where many can grow their knowledge and become better people. However, some of the local clergy have other ideas and try to destroy Aldred’s ideas and the monastery he hopes to build. Corruption abounds, leaving Aldred to turn to others for help, all while fending off those who would see him fail.

These three show how determination and a passion for others can shape the community in ways never thought possible. Dreng’s Ferry grows and soon becomes Kingsbridge, home of a bustling community and centre of Follett’s novel The Pillars of the Earth. I can only hope that patient and determined readers will try this book, as well as the official trilogy, losing themselves in the greatness that is this splendid series.

While I seem to have stuck to some of Follett’s heartier work (read: trilogies), I have never been disappointed. He is a master at telling a complex story with relatable characters and wonderful narrative flair. There is something to be said for this, while also penning massive tomes to get as much information shared as possible. Follett captivates as he reshapes the narrative throughout, spinning three stories and trying to bring them together under one proverbial roof. It was a journey like no other, but one I am pleased to have undertaken. With a new novel already out, I will have to see what new adventures Follett has in store for those who love his writing.

One thing that Follett has always done is use strong characters to guide the story, Here, he chose three presumptive protagonists and presents a thorough, delightful piece told through their eyes. While there is a great deal of backstory, the essence of the story brings out some masterful character development, first as independent characters, but slowly inching each together until the final chapter, as fans of Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth can see a recognisable location. Follett’s attention to detail with those he places in the story cannot be downplayed, as it helps create a picture in the mind of those who guide the narrative along.

While many find Ken Follett novels difficult to digest, it is usually because of an excessive amount of detail, rather than a lack thereof. Follett’s writing is so on point that I could not get enough of the details and the development that occurred with each passing chapter. A grounded narrative that slowly develops is accentuated with fundamentally ideal characters, all of whim have a richness that is essential to understanding the larger issues discussed. Plot twists and historical goings-on fuel a stellar story that seeks to lay the foundational groundwork for what is to come, a sensational trilogy about a cathedral and the town that develops around it. While there were portions that delved into areas that I did not find as alluring, there is surely something for everyone with this piece, leaving me enthralled with everything I read. I can see a new series that Follett’s recently released, which has me excited, as I am never sure what to expect.

Kudos, Mr. Follett, for leaving me curious yet again. Keep it up and your fan base will surely grow.

Notre-Dame: A Short History of the Meaning of Cathedrals, by Ken Follett

Eight stars

In response to the fire that engulfed the Notre Dame Cathedral on April 15, 2019, Ken Follett has put together this short piece to discuss the importance of this edifice. While news reports discussed the historic nature of this stone building, Follett points to a few other aspects that the reader might not have known. It took a great deal of time in the 12th century to erect this building, complete with spires so that it could be seen across the French countryside. It was so iconic that literary pieces began using it as a backdrop, such as Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame, or as a piece of reference—Follett’s own The Pillars of the Earth. It saw the ascension of political figures and was, for the most part, untouched during the Nazi bombings. This building has withstood a great deal and it is always being transformed to ameliorate its presence. While the fire may have gutted parts of this priceless edifice, it will be rebuilt, stronger and with newer technologies, allowing Notre Dame Cathedral to remain a focal point for generations to come. Fans of Follett’s historical fiction will enjoy these extremely brief essays that shed light on an architectural marvel. With all the proceeds of sales of the collection going towards the rebuilding effort, one can rest assured that Follett’s heart is in the right place. Recommended for those curious about the building or the reader who needs something interesting to read over a cup of something.

Kudos, Mr. Follett, for this wonderful piece. Short as it is, the impact is certainly present.

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge Series #3), by Ken Follett

Eight stars

Ken Follett again took a lengthy hiatus before penning this third novel in the series, which is reflected in the writing and shall be discussed below. Kingsbridge, with its cathedral and mighty bridge, again proves to be the initial backdrop of this thoroughly researched tome, set in the 16th century. The great community emerges in the opening pages of the novel, where the reader encounters Ned Willard, returning after a period away. As the snow falls, causing the great Cathedral to disappear, the symbolism of quick changes becomes apparent. However, there is more brewing in Kingsbridge and England as a whole, which pushes the narrative into a fiery discussion soon enough. Queen Mary Tudor is on the throne and has turned the country back to its Catholic foundation, which is causing some concerns amongst her subjects. Forced to flee Catholicism under Henry VIII, people took up with the new Church of England and sought to pave the way for Protestantism in the country. Kingsbridge monastery, so important in the first two novels, lost its firmament under the King and the monks were dispersed. However, as Queen Mary appears to be terminally ill, there is talk of the succession. Two camps emerge: those wanting continued Catholicism turn to Mary, Queen of Scots (and France); and those who seek to lessen the constraints of religious conformity turn to Princess Elizabeth Tudor, half-sister to the current queen. The battle lines are drawn and the choice turns the country against itself. Ned finds himself in an odd position as he witnesses this and takes up a post with the Elizabethan camp, only to become one of her most trusted advisors. Plots to kill Elizabeth emerge alongside attempts to get Scottish Mary to return to the land of her birth to claim what some feel will rightfully be hers. When the Queen dies, it is left to Parliament to make the choice, which Follett illustrates as being highly controversial and problematic, but Elizabeth soon ascends reigns as the first of her name. The new Queen riles up everyone by seeking tolerance and acceptance of any form of Christianity in England, choosing not to side with either Protestants or Catholics wholeheartedly. What follows is a collection of stories that emerge throughout Europe, using a handful of characters who illustrate the religious persecution of both Protestants and Catholics, using the Pope and various monarchs to play Christian chess with their subjects as they shed blood to see their branch of the religion succeed. Ned is placed in a position to not only try to win back the love of his life, but to accept fate and try to reinvent himself, while England is being torn apart. Follett illustrates this battle over decades, while the characters evolve but still have time to prove as scandalous as ever (what would a Kingsbridge novel be without some drama?!). By the end, Follett has shown that religious intolerance is by no means a new thing in the world, but that it can be traced back centuries, where ‘soldiers’ were blinded to acceptance and sought to outmanoeuvre their labelled enemies. A sensational addition to the Kingsbridge series, though it does not entirely fit with the other two novels. Fans of historical fiction will surely love this tome, alongside the most open-minded and ‘tolerant’ Kingsbridge series fans. Patience is a must before tackling this novel, so be wary if you seek a quick story and easy to decipher characters.

When I read the preface to Pillars of the Earth, I learned that Follett was not entirely comfortable with the subject matter when he first wrote that book. He knew little of the religious nuances of the Church, but has shown that age and dedication to research have changed his abilities. While I have some issues with this book, I cannot deny that the research and thoroughly intricate cast of characters make this one a must read for dedicated readers and fans of history. Follett is again forced to use scores of characters to flesh out the story, some pulled from the history books and others completely of his own imagination. As with the previous two books, occupations are varied, as are the social standings of those who grace the pages of this book. However, the characters from history dominate and thereby lead the story, forcing the ‘nobody’ characters to fall into line. There is still a thread of love, romance, rape, and deception, but it proves to be a garnish in a larger story that speaks of intolerance at a time when religion in Europe was (d)evolving. The dedicated reader will surely find a few characters onto whom they can latch and find some solace, though there are an equal number who can be hated for their actions. The story of this novel is well developed and presented in a methodical way, such that the reader can see not only the issue at the core of the story, but its fermentation over the decades. This leads me to my primary issue with the book, which is that it does not fit nicely into how Pillars and World Without End places Kingsbridge at the centre. There is action in Kingsbridge and the Cathedral does bear mention on occasion, but a great deal of the story takes place elsewhere, which lessens the impact of the community that readers have come to love. For Follett fans, the influence of his recently completed Century series is blunt in this narrative and plot development. Follett develops mini-stories throughout Europe, presenting characters who exemplify the religious issues in Spain and France, as well as in England, the attentive reader will remember such ‘branch-offs’ over the aforementioned trilogy. The reader learns of these struggles and waits to see how the numerous spheres will come together and eventually meld into a single storyline. While I am not a professional author, I might suggest that Kingsbridge have remained the central focus of the story and Follett show how this continental war and numerous assassination attempts on the country’s monarch affected the locals. Alas, that was lost and Ned Willard, a Kingsbridgean, is the major glue that binds the story to being a part of this other trilogy. With numerous monarchs who flex their muscle throughout to show how Catholicism is the only way, I can easily find justification to have this work for my reading challenge and I can only hope that others will find the thread of my argument and agree. While I found this to be the weakest of the three novels in the series, I still enjoyed it a great deal. I would recommend it to those who have made their way through the others two, in hopes that they will find as much enjoyment in the historical references as I did.

Kudos, Mr. Follett, for such a stellar piece of historical fiction. Some of those threads you left blowing in the wind might make for an interesting fourth novel, though I am not pushing for another round, unless you’re eager to return to Kingsbridge proper.

This book fulfills Equinox I (A Book for All Seasons) Book Challenge for Topic #3: A Book About Royalty

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge:

World Without End (Pillars of the Earth #2), by Ken Follett

Nine stars

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: