Pillars of the Earth (Review)

Pillars of the Earth (Review)

It’s a tale about the grandiose cathedrals that sprang up across Europe, massive stone buildings that pushed the bounds of architecture, finance and time. And it features all the people involved with the raising of one specific cathedral; the builder, the priest, the local earl, the bishop, a witch, and all the other characters who swarm across the novel’s 816 pages. By the time you finish it you’ll understand the complexities of vaulting a ceiling with stone, financing a gigantic project through wool trading, and traversing the complexities of church politics.

And unlike my usual reviews, I’ll start with the minor complaints first.

The writing is a bit simplistic. Unlike the soaring vaults of stone, there are no soaring elements of metaphors here. No clever twists of words, no striking truths of diction. Just meat-n-potatoes writing. I skipped from this to a China Mielville without leaving my airplane seat and, boy, could you see the difference. Where Mielville paints the ceiling of the Sistine, Follett is sweeping the floor with a workman’s methodical stroke.

And there is karma galore here. Good people are usually handsome (and often sexy) and bad people are ugly and twisted. Good people end their lives in contentment, smiling down at their descendants. Bad people come to sad or even horrific ends.

Further, the plot is rather episodic. Something bad comes up (usually caused by those doomed, ugly evil characters) and the good people deal with it. Everything ends happily. Then the next one comes up. There is no merging of crises. It’s just event-event-event, like tires on concrete expansions – bap-bap-bap.

And that’s the bad. Yet it’s very outweighed by the good.

I’ll be addressing the concept of writing for a broad market vs. a more limited readers market in next week’s Dog Ear. Follett knows how to knock out solid straightforward writing. He doesn’t waste words or time. He comes to the point. He’s honest in his writing. No esoteric double-meanings, just flat-as-a-board storytelling. And that’s not a bad thing – JB and I shared Night over Water years back and really enjoyed it. I think 800 pages of Wells or Mielville would kill me. The book has, for lack of a better concept, solid construction.

And his characters are fun. Pious Phillip. Steadfast Tom Builder. Fire-brandish Ellen. Proud Aliena. Screwy Jack. They all interact in ways I enjoyed. And the villains (with more lives than cats) are suitably fun to boo and hiss. It’s almost like watching a game of Medieval-Sims, with the little characters interacting with each other.

So yes, I liked it. It was a big solid book full of lots of history and research and character development, worth its price. I only wished I’d read it before traveling across Germany this summer. I would have appreciated the cathedrals more.