The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Fascinating, gripping story. This book is the mostly action-packed story of the construction of a fictional cathedral during the High Middle Ages.
I do have some quibbles. One, the main female character Aliena. You can tell Follett was a thriller writer prior to writing this. In my experience (major over-generalization here) thriller writers are terrible at writing female characters. She was beautiful, bosomy, and her one fault was stubbornness. Like every other female character written by a man who has no idea how to write women. Also she was quite feminist, which was a really lazy move by Follett. She talked about how much she loved having income independent of her husband. The major love of her life was her husband; she was rather indifferent towards her children. Really? A medieval woman who couldn't give up her own income and offloaded the care of her children to someone else. Soooo realistic. *eyeroll*
(Preemptive defense - yes I know there are plenty of women who worked outside their homes in the middle ages, but Aliena doesn't read like a medieval woman. She reads like a modern woman, with a couple of medieval quirks.)
My other quibble was Follett's cherry-picking of historical facts. He kept the sex & violence, but couldn't write a religious character to save his life. The most realistic religious character was Philip, and even he was a bit weak sauce. Follett freely admitted his inability to write a religious character in the introduction, but I was still disappointed. Christianity was an omnipresent part of medieval life, and Follett just wasn't up the writing task. The most convincing character was William Hamleigh, though I had to skip pages just about every time he appeared. Haha
In summary, this is a really good novel, but only an okay medieval novel.
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What I didn't include in my Goodreads review was that Follett was REALLY lazy about his setting. He used concepts of nationality that frankly didn't exist. People wouldn't have been able to think about language, class and country in the ways he has them freely converse. Normans are mentioned in passing. Normans conquered the Anglo-Saxon population a mere 100 years prior to the time of this novel, yet Follett reduces Norman aristocracy and Anglo-Saxon peasantry to a linguistically and culturally homogenous population. This simply didn't exist in the Middle Ages. Jews are mentioned in passing. They are really treated pretty nicely by all the characters. All the characters do is snidely remark about borrowing money from Jews. Despite the fact that there was virulent (not to mention violent) anti-Semitism at that time. Those are just a couple of examples from off the top of my head. It's all so lazy. I think if you really want to write a novel set in the Middle Ages, you should commit to it. None of this halfway crap. I didn't love Katherine, but even that was more realistic than this novel.