Review: World Without End by Ken Follett

Two years ago, in 2011, I made a goal to read 100 books in a year, which I accomplished (you can read my old reviews on the blog I kept that year, Read.Knit.Spin.Blog.), but due to returning to graduate school in 2012, reading sort of fell by the wayside.  This year, I’ve renewed my goal, but amended it to 50 books in 2012.  I will publish reviews as I go along.

Book 1 for 2013 is Ken Follett’s epic work of historical fiction, World Without End.  

The sequel to the epic bestseller The Pillars of the Earth takes place almost two hundred years later, in the same village of Kingsbridge, with a new cast of characters battling evil, corruption, and the Black Death as they struggle to live and love in the English Middle Ages.

This book marketed itself as a sequel to Pillars, but the similarities only went so far as the setting of the novel and vague references to characters from the so-called “prequel.”  In Pillars, Follett seamlessly interwove his fictitious tale of a poor builder’s quest and a young ambitious prior’s wish to build a cathedral in the poor little village of Kingsbridge, with the true historical tale of the sinking of the White Ship, the death of the heir to the British throne, and the dynastic battle between the King’s daughter, Maud, and her cousin, Stephen.  What makes Pillars great is not only the seamless blending of history and fiction, but also Follett’s ability to create dynamic characters that are a mix of the best and worst in personality, making “flawed”, but still likeable and sympathetic, indviduals.

In World Without End, Follett succeeds at the latter.  It is difficult, reading through the book, to determine the “evil” characters from the “good”, as they move from sympathetic to unsympathetic.  Even the “heroes” frequently commit sins or make mistakes that sway the reader to indignation.  The characters who seem to be truly evil do, occasionally, have some redemptive qualities (although not many).  Spoiler alert: In Pillars, the reader feels not an ounce of sympathy for wicked William Hamleigh; yet the “William” character in World Without End, Ralph Fitzgerald, occasionally displays morality or at least hesitancy in his wickedness.  This ability to craft “real” characters is one of Follett’s masterpieces.

Unfortunately, World Without End is not the brilliant piece of historical fiction that its predecessor was, and the fault lies not with the fiction, but the history.  The Black Plague as a backdrop for the story is written well, but the other “true” storyline, barely hinted at throughout the book, is not truth at all, but sensationalized historical fabrication.  This could be forgiven, if it was dynamic, or added anything to the story line, which it does not.  As a history fanatic, I approached the last 30 pages of Pillars with trepidation and excitement; the ending blew my mind.  I reached the end of World Without End with feelings of mild disappointment.

While I was impressed with the scope of the writing (and as always, with the research), I would have probably enjoyed this book more if it hadn’t been marketed as the sequel to one of my favorite books of all time.

Length: Clocking in at 1,025 pages (my paperback copy), this is no small fete.  It is a relatively quick read, despite its length.

Recommend? Yes

To Whom? Anyone who is interested in historical fiction, particularly that of the Black Plague or the Middle Ages in England.  I would not really recommend it to anyone who picks it up looking for the same caliber as Pillars; though the book is a good read, it is sadly not up to the standard I had expected.

Rating: *** of 5 star.