A 1989 predecessor of Game of Thrones, Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth follows the fortunes of a wide case of characters through the war of Maud and Stephen in 1100s England. Follett uses several different points of view to tell the story of the building of a grand medieval cathedral. Key characters include Tom Builder – a humble craftsman with lofty ambitions, pampered Lord’s daughter Aliena and the shrewd Prior Phillip of Kingsbridge. It’s written as a straight historical drama, but there are some elements of sorcery in parts, so I’m reviewing it as part of my “magic in the real world” fantasy category.
A character-driven story that doesn’t disappoint
Firstly, the dialogue is fantastic. Reassuringly so, since this is a story that hangs entirely on the voices of several different characters to carry the narrative forward. It walks the line between overly modern and unnecessarily archaic perfectly, while also sounding realistic and easy to follow. When you forget you’re reading because you’re “hearing” them, it’s usually a good sign.
The use of multiple point-of-view chapters from different characters gives an unusually rounded view of the overall plot. Seeing into the minds of the villians is especially intriguing as it’s not something we see very often in historical dramas. It does remove some of the suspense, but quite frankly, it’s so fascinating being able to see behind their masks to the weaknesses they’re trying to hide, it’s worth it.
While we’re talking about villains though, I have to say there is still a satisfying blend of light and darkness. You could never call this book subtle; the villains and the good guys are very evident from the start. But that said, they generally all have a decent (and by that I mean plausible/believable, but not necessarily moral) motivation for their actions. I wouldn’t go as far as to say this makes you feel sorry for the villains, but it does at least avoid the lazy assumption that bad guys are inherently evil – something that some sword and sorcery tales could take note of.
A soap opera with medieval trappings at times
However, while we do get to know the characters quite intimately, the downside is that it does give the story a sense of overwhelming melodrama. This may be a natural consequence of taking the ensemble approach to storytelling – that we witness events through more than one pair of eyes; it makes us experience them repeatedly. Unfortunately this does at times give Pillars the feel of a soap opera with medieval trappings at times.
I felt somewhat let down by the magic elements in this novel. In fact, I’d go as far as to say that the inclusion of magic at all feels unnecessary. There are a number of scenes and one particular character whom, it is suggested, owns supernatural powers. However, this is never really fully explored, other than as a minor plot device and so it feels a bit like magic for the sake of it. I think it provides little more than a distracting side plot and with so much else happening, the story would have been stronger without it.
There’s also the question of whether Pillars is misogynistic or realistic. You should be careful reading it if you normally avoid triggers involving violence against women, as there’s a lot of it here. Certainly it’s possible that attitudes were different at the time the book was written – it was published in 1989 in the UK, where marital rape was not made illegal until 1991 – 2 years after publication. People may also argue that like Game of Thrones, it’s simply an attempt to portray the reality of the time in which it is set. But it feels a touch too over-enthusiastic for me personally.