World without End (Moontide & Magic Rise) Mass Market Paperback – 27 Aug 1998
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About the Author
Sean Russell was born in Toronto, Ontario in 1952, and had his first fantasy novel, the Asian influenced "The Initiate Brother" in 1991. His influence in the fantasy world comes from J. R. R. Tolkien, and knew he wanted to be a writer since the age of ten.
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This is being touted as a sequel to "The Pillars of the Earth" which is true enough, but it is also a little misleading, as it is set 200 years after the tales told in that magnificent novel, and as such can definitely be read as a stand alone novel. Having said that though, if you haven't read "Pillars of the Earth" - do - it is magnificent!
Knowledge of this wonderful earlier work will be helpful, as there is reference to characters from that time and being familiar with their adventures certainly gives you some insight into what is happening at the time, but if you are new to Follett's work, please don't let this put you off. He mentions enough of the earlier characters (without being boring to those readers who know the book SO well)for any new reader to have an idea of what has happened before.
The tale seems simple enough - 4 very different young people witness a fight in the forrest which leads to death and the hiding of a great secret, and this reverberates through their lives for years to come. What is not simple enough is the detail that goes in to these character's lives - they are all wonderful in their own different ways, and we can all feel that we can see the world they live in, taste their food, smell the odours of their environment and rejoice and mourn as they do.
Follett is also the master of understanding how humans think; how they plot and scheme, and how the whims of fate can change a life that seems completely planned and organised. And all of this in a magnificent medieval setting with court intrigue, pious devotion, illness and the whims of nature! What more could you want?
If you like a good hefty historical novel with a great plot, detailed environment and well drawn and very engaging characters, you will NOT be disappointed. It is wonderful and I recommend it highly.
I am happy to report that my concerns were unfounded. The book is long, but it has a lot going on and is not at all bloated. There are several stories being told, but they all interweave and the elimination of one would be a loss. Although it is set in the same location and refers back to some of the original characters, reading or remembering "Pillars" is not required. I enjoy learning about the construction and medical theories of the day and wish this aspect had been further expanded, but if a reader does not, there is not so much of it that it would be detrimental.
All in all, if you like historical fiction with plenty of death, love and destruction, this book is highly recommended. The length of the book will dissuade some from trying it, but those who have longer attention spans will not be disappointed.
But I was disappointed. While "World without End" is compelling stuff with endless twists in it's storyline and characters you grow fond of, this book just doesn't have that epic pizzazz that "Pillars" had in spades. A lot of the events in this book seem to be rehashed from its predecessor and now that the cathedral is built it seems that the major issues facing Kingsbridge (like becoming a town in its own right, having a cathedral at all) are over and done with. "Pillars" was at its heart a book about creation and the forces of the time that caused that-the church, the ruling class, the merchants, even the peasents. Its a book about a developing society that is setteling down not only from the recent Norman invasion, but is gearing up to be one of the greatest empires the world will ever see (even though that happens hundreds of years later.) This book has no unifying theme that creates the epic feel that "Pillars" had-the sense that you were reading about something great (though fictional) in history.
Anyway the basic plot follows the formula from "Pillars." We start out with a piece of a mystery that gradually revels clues to us as we read on. In this case, four children, two sons of an impoverished knight, (Ralph and Merthin) one wealthy daughter of a prosperous wool merchant (Caris) and a dirt poor urchin girl who steals so her family can live (Gwenda), witness a man attacked in the woods because of a letter he is carrying. This experience binds the children for life-along with that of the attacked knight (Thomas) who becomes a monk so he is beyond the reach of whoever tried to kill him.
Of course we don't know what's in the letter, just that it has something to do with the death of King Edward II (the gay one who was disposed by his Queen and her lover so her son could rule) and if it's found heads will (literally) role.
But this mystery is secondary, almost a non-presence in the book compared to the drama of Jack's father's death in "Pillars." Also our main characters are like paler versions of the characters we loved and hated in "Pillars." Merthin is Jack, the fantastic, romantic builder with an almost supernatural ability with stone, Ralph is William, the corrupt knight with no moral center, Caris is Aliena, strong and with more business sense and determination than any women of the time, and Gwenda-well she's an entirely new character but she features so little it doesn't even matter.
My point is this-there isn't a whole lot that's original in this book. The romance is nowhere near as spellbinding as the tortured and blinding love the perfect Jack and Aliena from "Pillars" had. In fact, its two hundred years later and now Kingsbridge is one of the largest cities in England instead of a struggling town, but everything seems the same. The same conflicts happen again and again, the same character struggles. The only real difference is the emergence of the Black Death some lesbianism and a well described and probably realistic battle of the priory against the town (which frankly made me sad because Prior Phillip from "Pillars" would be so dissapointed at how the monastery developed.)
I'm not saying this is a bad book, its even compelling at times. But compared to "Pillars" it is a poor imitation of an almost perfect historical fiction novel. Who knows, maybe if you read this before Pillars (they aren't reliant on each other enough that order matters) it would seem like a better book then it is. But really, I expected more. I would put this on par with Follett's other two historical novels, A Place Called Freedom and A Dangerous Fortune but it's not in the same class as The Pillars of the Earth (Deluxe Edition) (Oprah's Book Club).
Of course not very many books are. Maybe one in a million.
So the real test, would I read this again. Sure. It was good after all-but it didn't live up to expectations created by "Pillars."
1. Follett has obviously done his research on the period, other than the language, but he lets it take center stage, to the detriment of his characters. It feels like he created a list of stock items from the middle ages and checked them off as he went along -- horny bishop: check; power-hungry priest: check; lesbian nun: check; lord of the manor who thinks his serfs don't matter as humans: check; black death: check; etc., etc., etc. He even brings in the flagellants, for no apparent reason, even though they really didn't exist to any significant degree in England. Most of it doesn't advance or have anything to do with the story -- it's just there so that he can get in everything having to do with the 14th century.
2. The characters don't feel like real people. It is possible to set a book in this time period and put characters in it that seem to live and breathe and make you care about them. Connie Willis' The Doomsday Book does this really well. When her characters die, you cry. Follett's main characters all miraculously survive the horrors of the century, and it's only the peripheral characters who die. Yet you don't feel their pain or their triumphs or anything much. They just don't seem real.
3. Follett attributes a 21st century sensibility to the characters that is out of keeping for even the most progressive people in the 14th century. I love the idea of a woman who wants to break out of the servitude and inferiority of women in the middle ages, but Caris, the lead female character, is an outright feminist. And when Merthin, the main male character, discovers that one of the monks in the town has been stealing things, he wonders if maybe it's a sickness. Give me a break! The notion that something that was considered a sin might have been caused by mental illness just didn't exist in the 14th century. The book is riddled with anachronistic attitudes such as these.
4. As other reviewers have pointed out, the book is filled with words and phrases that didn't exist in the 14th century. I appreciate that Follet has tried to make the language sound natural, rather than using the syntax of the period, which would have sounded natural to people in the middle ages but wouldn't to us. But using words like "senility" (which the Oxford English Dictionary records as not having appeared in pring until 1791), phrases like "gone missing" (a 20th century creation), etc., doesn't sound natural, it just takes you even further out of the time period. Particularly noticeable is that the characters call the plague "the plague." "Plague" wasn't used for any illness until much later. The people who lived through the Black Death (another term from much later) called it the "pestilence" or the "Great Mortality." They definitely did not use the term plague. If you don't know this, it might not make much difference to your enjoyment of the book, but if you're a history buff, things like this just take you further out of the action. Given how much research Follett obviously did on the period, the inattention to language just seems sloppy.
5. Some people have been offended by the amount of sex in the book. It's not the amount that's a problem. Let's face it -- there was no t.v., few people had books, and the main form of entertainment you could have after dark was sex. So it's not surprising to find alot of it. The problem is that it's gratuitous and written from a real male fantasy perspective. A sample from one of Follet's less graphic passages: "Caris had never seen Mair undressed, and she could not resist a peek. Her companion's naked body took her breath away. Mair's skin seemed to glow like a pink pearl. Her breasts were generous, with pale girlish nipples, and she had a luxuriant bush of fair public hair." And seriously -- how many times does Merthin have to look at a pillar and remember the time he "felt up" Caris there?
6. The mystery at the core of the book, having to do with the death of Edward II, is lame and implausible and there's really not much of a payoff. It feels tacked on in order to give the sense of a story, when the book is really not much more than a survey of the middle ages (albeit with the tacked on attitudes of modern times for the main characters).
I was so excited about reading this book, but it was a major disappointment, neither moving, nor particularly entertaining or informative. If you want to learn about the 14th century, I'd recommend Barbara Tuchman's "A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century", Thomas Costain's series on the Plantagenets, particularly "The Three Edwards" (which covers the 14th century), Jonathan Sumption's books on the Hundred Years War, Paul B. Newman's "Daily Life in the Middle Ages," or for fiction, the aforementioned "The Doomsday Book." All would be better choices than this long (over 900 pages) and unengaging volume.