In the same vein as, and equal in excellence to, its prequel 'The Pillars of the Earth' (which was voted into the top 100 of Britain's favourite books), 'World Without End' is a historical epic centred around the lives of a varied group of characters living in a mediaeval town.
Weighing in at 1111 modestly printed pages (the hardback edition), 'epic' is a well earned description. Yet the novel is gripping and engrossing from the first chapter and remains so thoughout. It is a testimony to Ken Follett's writing that despite its size, it doesn't feel like a long book. It's the correct length, the length it needs to be to tell the story, and there is no waffle, padding or wasted words.
The story is set in the same town as 'Pillars of the Earth' but takes place 200 years later, so could be enjoyed without having read the former (there are couple of very mild spoilers, but nothing too revealing). Of course, all of the original characters are long dead, although some of the principal characters are descended from them and their acheivements are occasionally referred to.
Beginning in 1327, the four major characters are children who witness a mysterious murder in the forest. It follows them through their lives, ending in 1361. A diverse group, through these characters Follett is able to cover many aspects of 14th century life. One becomes a knight, another is a builder (picking up on the principal theme of the prequel), the third enters the church and the fourth is a peasant. They are supported by a varied and vividly drawn cast of secondary characters; scheming monks, corrupt noblemen, merchants and peasants struggling to make their way in the world.
The historical events of the period are covered through how they affect the characters, but the novel focusses on people and their personal dramas, both large and small, rather than relating facts. The plague is an important storyline as it enters the town, and the French wars are touched upon for a few chapters. The real joy of the story is in how it relates small details of daily life for mediaeval people - their clothes, food and customs. It truly brings history alive and I felt like I was really there despite knowing little history myself.
From the first page Follett conjures up the earthiness and superstition of those times. I can't comment on how accurate it is as I wouldn't know, but it certainly rings true and even if it wasn't all compeltely correct, I don't think it would really matter. It's a great story, not a textbook, and has certainly interested me in the history of the period far more than any amount of history classes in school ever did.
Injustice is an important theme throughout the book, as the decent characters see their aspirations thwarted again and again by the corruption and self-interest of those in power. It does make you appreciate the UK legal system we have now, despite its faults. Ambition is another element present in all of the disparate characters, even if it is for very different things, and their struggles to acheive their dreams in spite of the odds makes for a thoroughly gripping tale.
The only real disadvantage of the book is its size, which in hardback at least practically prohibits reading 'on the go' (on holiday or whilst commuting, for example). However, I hope this doesn't put people off as they will be missing out on a great read. Also Christian readers may be uneasy with some of the storylines involving the monks and nuns, who do not always behave in a very Christian manner. However, this is always down to the individuals and the circumstances of the era and do not imply any criticism of the religion itself, so I would think it unlikely to give offence to most readers. It is also probably realistic.
Overall, I would highly recommend this novel as a fine piece of writing. It's rare to find a historical novel that reads like a thriller, yet all the pace and suspense that have made Follett a successful writer in the latter genre are apparent here. There's also an intriguing plot, well rounded characters, and just the right level of description. As with all Follett novels there is a fair bit of sex, although this does not overly dominate. It's very easy to read as well and should appeal to a wide range of readers. Even if you have to keep it at home and have a slimmer book for taking out, this is a book not to be missed.
Having read and loved the author's epic saga, "Pillars of the Earth", a novel about the building of a cathedral in the town of Kingsbridge in twelfth century England, I very much looked forward to reading this book. I was not disappointed. This is a masterful saga of life in fourteenth century England, and the author weaves a rich and colorful tapestry of people, places, and events in the medieval town of Kingsbridge, where a magnificent cathedral now stands.
There are a number of rich and colorful characters that drive the story, and the age old battle between good and evil plays itself out through them. Spanning a period of thirty-four turbulent years, this is a spellbinding story of love, hate, betrayal, revenge, and triumph. Moreover, the Black Plague has reared its ugly head, and England will never be the same. New ideas are germinating on the horizon, coming into conflict with the settled way of doing things, and the town and people of Kingsbridge are in a state of flux.
Although the novel is a lengthy one, the reader will be unable to put the book down, so engaging and absorbing is the story. Those who are partial to the historical fiction genre will very much enjoy this book.
on 18 December 2007
Many novels are slow to start as they lay the foundations for what is to come later, but right from the opening pages this novel is likely to suck you in and make you not want to put it down. The novel is set in a 14th Century town and the surrounding villages. Though it is a sequel to a previous novel, the setting is quite a bit later in time and it is not at all necessary to have read the earlier book in order to be able to enjoy this one. The novel is brimming with fascinating intrigue and torrid love affairs. Novels of this kind set in the present can often descend to the level of a mere soap opera and become uninteresting. Here the power relationships inherent in the medieval setting make the Machiavellian conniving of the characters engaging and at times thought-provoking. We see the power of nobles over their serfs, the power of the King over his nobles, the power of the Church over the people and the power of men over women, all explored through a truly captivating plot. The novel is peopled with characters some of whom we despise and others whom we feel total empathy with. Some of the characters accept the status quo of medieval life and others buck the system from start to finish. Unavoidably, in a story powered by this kind of intrigue, the complications in the plot are occasionally solved in a way that is somewhat contrived. The strength of this novel is that the solutions are always remarkably creative and the author never cheats by introducing unrealistic or previously unknown elements into the story. More than this, however, the solutions are always totally believable given the natures of the compelling characters Follett has created. A great read.
on 7 December 2007
This book makes a good sequel to the marvellous 'Pillars of the Earth', without the nessecity of reading 'Pillars' first. As a small warning, I would add that if you don't like Ken Follett, or found Pillars over long, this book is more of the same, but for me, that was part of the pleasure, and I wish the book were longer. Interesting weave of tales around the historical events of the period, and a read that keeps you turning pages, too fast in my case.
I loved "Pillars" - and enjoyed "World", too. The historical details were fascinating, there was enough drama, love and violence to fill a bookshelf; it was probably too long, but Follett has a particular light touch that is able to sustain the reader's attention for the whole time. Indeed, there was nothing really wrong with the book.
But though "World" has everything that made "Pillars" so successful, we have just seen it all before. For some of the characters, there were enough new subtleties that made them more interesting than a carbon copy; Godwyn is an ambiguous character (at least, at the start - he does mould into a stereotype towards the end) that does not seem to be similar to anyone in "Pillars", while Ralph is despicable yet still evokes some sympathy, unlike William. However, Caris was unmistakeably a 21st century woman and her thoughts were so out of context that she made the book less believable; meanwhile, Merthin is basically Jack and remained a very boring character throughout the novel. Much of the plotline, too, gave an overwhelming sense of deja vu - there is a great building project (bridge/cathedral), builder goes on a faraway journey after heartbreak (Jack/Merthin), lead character tries her hand at an enterprise (Aliena/Caris), and so on.
Another thing is that the book reads far too much like a soap opera. This just makes the story more juicy and hooks our attention while reading, but when it's over it leaves a slightly vulgar and crowd-pleasing taste. The constant showdowns between the conflicting sides become very tiresome after a few hundred pages. You know that if a 'good' character plans something sensible, it will never come to pass; though exciting to read, the reader does need a bit of respite sometimes. Most of all, the amount and frequency of sexual explicitness did degrade the novel - Follett does not leave things to the imagination, and I almost felt a little indecent reading it. The gratuitous sex made sure I can never unequivocally recommend the novel to others.
Many of these criticisms apply to "Pillars" too, to be fair - however, "Pillars" worked magnificently well because everything always came back to the centre of the story, the building of the cathedral. "World", on the other hand, is missing that unifying entity and therefore the plot, while intriguing, seems to ultimately go nowhere.
Despite all of this, I did enjoy the novel. I have gained a huge insight into daily life in the medieval era from both books, and they have been two of the most gripping books I've ever read. I do recommend "Pillars" as it is definitely worth a read - and "World" is not disappointing at all, just very similar.
on 19 May 2013
Where to start...how can a book that is essentially 'Pillars of the Earth' with different character names be so starkly contrasting? I loved PotE, yet World Without End became a battle between myself and the endless chapters. It is purely Mr Follett's ability to write a book sooooo long that has earned the review 2 stars. I shall, however, be awarding myself 5 stars for tenacity.
Allow me to elaborate on reasons for the lower than average rating:
Firstly, it should be noted that Mr Follett has envisioned a screenplay which he has written into a book; it doesn't work.
The characters were initially endearing and naive, however, after spending what seemed like real time years with them; having every detail described with minute specifications, I grew despondent and cared little for what happened to them. I cared more for Griff (why was the horse described in so much detail??)...although what happened to such a central character I will never know - the last we heard he was retired from active war duty!
The 'erotic' elements were simply awful; every other page seemed to detail a woman's breasts being grabbed or another lifting their dress after barely a 'hello'. The sexual nature became irritating, awkward and quite honestly made the author appear chauvinistic (apart from his descriptions of Merthin who seemed completely in touch with his feminine side and the rights of women as per the 21st century).
The 21st century attitudes and slang were a wonder to behold in 14th century England, it's a wonder the feminist movement didn't come about 3 centuries earlier.
As the book progressed, the envisaged elements of screen play became ever more apparent: the sordid scenes involving Gwenda, the wonderfully cheesy endings for Mair (just enough time to say I love you) and Godwyn falling into a grave. Don't worry though, if you were to forget what happened there were the recap sections (previously in World Without End) every 100 pages or so...please! I actually found myself saying out loud 'I know - I read it!'
I could continue with many elements of the book that simply appeared to be opinions of the author et al: a 31 year old made to sound ancient (her skin wasn't as supple) or the endless references to Caris' heroism/sainthood, every woman in the book being intelligent, wily and steadfast in love, the men being unintelligent monsters, the clergy scheming hypocrites. I hate to leave such a terrible review but I really cannot see how this works as a book. Overindulgent, overrated, overdetailed. Sorry Mr Follett - LOVED Pillars but WWE needed a stronger and simpler storyline.
on 8 January 2008
Usually when I read a book I either love it completely, or get really bored and struggle to finish it. This would have to be the first book to have my opinion torn 50/50.
On a positive note I found the depiction of medieval life generally to be fairly accurate, the initial story lines were intriguing, and for the greater part I was strongly compelled to read on. Having never read Pillars of the Earth I did not suffer the deja-vu some others reviewers have mentioned, and indeed I found the characters interesting. However, this is where I find the first major flaw; the main female characters are just too modern, the antics of Gwenda and Caris would simply not have been accepted to the extent they are portrayed, likewise some of the lesser female characters.
Other irritations include the repeatitiveness of the situation between Caris/Merthin, and Ralph/Wulfric; gratuitous sex; unecessary detailing of the less savoury episodes, and ultimately I found the ending to be a flat, anti-climax.
I would think that if you have never studied the period, then it probably offers a fascinating insight, unnblighted by knowledge of inaccuracies. However, having studied the period extensively, I found the constant explanations annoying, and the inclusion of 21st century thinking to be too far out of context.
From what others reviewers have written, I will probably give Pillars of the Earth a go, but my loyalty has to stay with Bernard Cornwell for that historical 'fix'!
on 16 March 2009
The World Without End is a story that is wonderfully told. We care about the characters and the style is a real pleasure.
However it was disappointing to find such a huge number of similarities between this book and the Pillars of the Earth: the evil lord, the victimised-but-resilient woman, the nasty cleric, the enlightened-craftsman-who-goes-on-a-voyage-of-discovery... are all here. In fact, ALL the major characters from the plot in Pillars of the Earth can be found again, with different names and backgrounds. This new book is clearly built on the same model and follows closely the same plot, including a very tenuous link to some royal secret master-plot that doesn't really add anything to the overarching theme. Time after time, I was pulled out of the story by a feeling of "deja-vu" I would have preferred to do without.
If you have read "Pillars of the Earth", you have read "World Without End". Pity.
on 9 October 2007
Having really enjoyed "Pillars of the Earth" I snapped this one up as soon as it hit the stores, and was immediately immersed into the world of medieval Britain - from the perspective of ordinary people living and working in towns and villages.
A large sprawling novel, "World Without End" has many of the themes of it's predecessor, with a new building project being one of the story-lines, but Follett makes it seem fresh and new. The characters are interesting and well rendered, and the interlinking stories retain interest throughout the thousand odd pages.
If you enjoyed "Pillars" you will undoubtedly enjoy this one, however you do not need to have read the the earlier novel to appreciate this one, as it it set two hundred years later and references to the earlier work are incidental. Having said that I'm now re-reading the first novel as I'm loathe to leave Kingsbridge just yet!
on 10 October 2007
The Pillars of the Earth has been one of my all-time favorite books, and so I was a little skeptical about how good its sequel could be. My concern was totally unnecessary. World Without End, which takes place in the same town of Kingsbridge almost 200 years later and has the cathedral as its backdrop, is an excellent book and I expect that in time it will also be considered to be a masterpiece. Not having read The Pillars of the Earth will not deter you in any way from enjoying World Without End, as other than the common thread mentioned above, it reads like a stand-alone. Follett "packs it all" in this hefty page-turner -- love, greed, pride, ambition and revenge. Do yourself a favor and be one of the first on line to get yourself a copy of this very entertaining and memorable book. But be aware that your enjoyment won't come cheap -- the retail price of World Without End is £20. I think you'll find, however, that it is worth every penny.