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.

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: