Thursday, April 10, 2008
I stayed up late the other night breathlessly finishing Ken Follett's gripping book The Pillars of the Earth. His sweeping story, set in 12th century England, and following the interwoven lives of a mason, a prior, and the dispossessed daughter of an earl, was absolutely fascinating. The plot was a rollercoaster of dreams, conflict, ambitions and intrigue, with unpredictable twists and turns. The characters were engaging, with several noble heroes, a few vile villains, and many other glimpses of humanity. And all set in a very vivid and multifaceted description of 12th century life, leaving me with rich pictures of life in a monastery, in a medieval town, in the royal court, in a local nobleman's castle, and in the villages and the forests. I came for a rollicking story in a historical setting, and came away with so much more. Not just with a history lesson in the early Norman kings of England and the Thomas Becket affair, and a contagious appreciation for the art of cathedral architecture, but a fairly complete lesson in medieval economy slipped in painlessly under the cover of a great story. I knew a nave from a transept before I read this book, but I learned much about the revolutionary advances from romanesque to gothic architectural style, and what it took to get one of those amazing structures built. But lessons aside, it was the story and the characters that kept me rapt. Though they weren't always the most subtle (by and large, the good guys were good and the bad guys were bad), the main characters were given a lifetime of depth, with the heroes at least having times of doubt, frustration, and some imperfections. Over the course of the story, which spanned a full generation or two, I got to know and love (or hate) the characters, and even stayed up late at night sometimes worrying about how they would resolve whatever situation the last page had left them on. And as I closed on the final 150 pages, there was simply no stopping.