Francine's Reviews > The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
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Jan 15, 11

bookshelves: books-i-don-t-care-for, historical-fiction, epic
Read in July, 2008 — I own a copy

I did not hate this book (hate would be too strong a word, and I can't hate it because I applaud the fact that Ken Follett attempted to write an epic novel). But I did not like it. I didn't like it from the start; his writing style hit me like a brick, but Jim thoroughly enjoyed the book that I kept trying to convince myself that I ought to give it a chance, hoping it would get better. When I was about 500 pages in, he saw how miserable I was and asked why I didn't just stop reading it, but at that point, I was invested in it; I had spent all that time getting that far, that I needed to finish it, and I couldn't wait to come to the end. I kept counting down: "Only 450 pages left; only 300 to go; last 200 pages...yay, I have 50 pages left!" Those fifty pages were the toughest to get through. By the time I was at the end, I thought it was a wasted effort - both on his part and mine.

It's so much easier to explicate on what I did not like because there were so many things:
- I loathed the writing style (he vacillated between pages and pages of highly complex architectural discourses to third-grade level simple sentences grouped into short paragraphs). Sometimes it was bearable. Other times, I wanted to pull my hair out. There were times when I felt the only time he came alive as an author was when he was discussing architecture, but these parts were so didactic in nature that it couldn't hold my interest for long periods of time.
- I did not like the author's narrative style. He had to tie everything together (causality was so prevalent throughout the text that I wondered how he didn't work in how the killing of a fly affected events 60 years later). Every single storyline was wrapped up - too neatly for my liking, in some cases. Everyone was tied to someone else (it was like playing Six Degrees); every single character had to have a denouement; every little plot twist had to be explained; closure had to be achieved, no matter how preposterous the circumstances, over time and space.
- The characterization was poor. In fact, it was appalling how two-dimensional these characters were. Good people were good. Bad people were loathsome. As time went on, the good were always suffering one thing or another; they were put upon; they were harrassed; they were constantly challenged and put to the test like Job (something Follett actually used as a sermon!). The badfolk became more oppressive over time; they were not only detestable, but they had absolutely no redeeming qualities. And to go with a typical medieval stereotype, the good were always excessively beautiful, honorable, intelligent (geniuses or savants, even!) - and if they weren't rich, they would be at the end (I half expected Havelok the Dane and his refrigerator mouth to pop up somewhere, proving once and for all that in the medieval period, to be good was to have the purest light shining out of your mouth each time you opened it). Nevertheless, the bad became uglier, became more despotic, scheming throughout life to get the better of their enemies (the goodfolk). But in the end, good always triumphed over evil; those who could, repented and were forgiven. Those who couldn't, were killed off somehow, because apparently, death is the only way an evil person gets his (or her) dues. And then everyone had a happy ending. I hate happy endings when they're so obviously contrived. And this work was so elaborately, exhaustively, thoroughly contrived. (Maybe it's not too late for me to change my mind and say I hated it. *grin*)
- Historically speaking, there was so much left to be desired. Granted, this novel was written two decades ago, and there have been new discoveries about the medieval period since Follett started his research. But he got it all wrong anyhow. His idea of medieval life was so...off, that it hurt my head to continue reading sometimes. I had to pause periodically and rant to Jim about what I currently found off-putting (for example, there weren't many literate people at the time; at the time this novel was set, there was still a distinct divide between England and Wales; reading and writing were two separate skill sets, and people who knew how to read did not necessarily know how to write and vice versa; orality was a prevalent part of storytelling back then and books not so much and yet somehow, he conflated much of both; manuscript writing was either orally dictated or copied tediously by the monks - his concept of a scriptorium was incomplete, defective - and there has been so much written about this that it saddened me; he used modern translations of medieval poetical/verse works and couldn't explain even alliterative verse form effectively - I even wonder if he knew what it was; his understanding of the languages of the period - Old English, Middle English, Latin, Norman French, Old French, Middle French, etc. - and what was spoken by the aristocrats vs. the peasants vs. the growing middle classes disgusts me; he showed a lack of understanding of medieval law, medieval rights, the social classes, gender roles, even the tales and legends of the period, in both England and France; priests were quite low on the totem pole, in terms of the religious hierarchy, and were quite disparaged yet somehow, that didn't quite come across in this novel...I could go on and on, but I won't).

And the historical part of the novel I just found lacking. There are enough histories and chronicles, contemporaneously written, of the time, that he did not have to deviate much from history. There is so much written about the period between the death of Henry I through the civil wars between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen, to the time that Henry II ascended the throne (including the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett), that I don't quite understand how he couldn't have mined the chronicles for better material. I understand that this is why it's called historical fiction, and that there will always be some element of fiction interspersed with historical fact. But the fictional aspects usually have to do with surrounding characters and situations that bolster the history. The fiction is not necessarily to the history itself. Many times, when writing historical fiction, the author has to beware the pitfalls of creating a revisionist retelling, interspersing his or her own ideals or beliefs of what should have been to what was. If this novel had been marketed as a revisionary narrative, it would have been okay. But it wasn't. I'm just glad that the historical aspect of the novel just served as the background and not the real story. Because then, I probably would've stopped reading.

The premise was a good one and held a lot of promise. It could've been a great historical epic had it been handled by a more assured writer. By someone who was more of a visionary, someone who had the patience to do exhaustive research or who knew how to craft richly developed characters. It needed an author who understood the epic genre, who knew how to mold the epic, who knew how to keep the narrative going, seemlessly binding time with narration and the human condition, without resorting to stereotypes and grating drama. And most importantly, it needed someone who understood when the story had been told; that while there will always be other stories to tell, that each book has its own natural end, and that these stories may not belong in this book.

Ken Follett may be a bestselling author of suspense novels (and even historical fiction such as Pillars of the Earth and World without End), but he is no writer of epics. Compared to writers of historical fiction such as Edward Rutherford, James Michener, Bernard Cornwell or Margaret George, Ken Follett has a long way to go.
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Comments (showing 1-50 of 54) (54 new)


Misfit I so agree, this was a dreaful book. Take a look at Edith Pargeter's Heaven Tree Trilogy - written years before this one and is about (surprise) a master stone mason hired to build a great cathedral. Hmmmmm.

BTW, for well written books on the Stephen and Maude try Sharon Kaye Penman's When Christ and His Saints Slept and Time and Chance. Also, Elizabeth Chadwick's A Place Beyond Courage. Those two ladies know their medieval period.


Francine Thanks! I have a few books of Pargeter's and Penman's also. I'm looking forward to reading Pargeter's Brothers of Gwynedd Quartet. There are many, many books that have dealt with the medieval period which are much better written than Follett's. I'm still debating whether I'm going to read World Without End - did you?


Misfit Read another Follett book? Never. I'll be interested as to what you think of the Brothers Quartet. It was a bit dry for me, but I'm not warm and fuzzy on first person POV. The Heaven Tree Trilogy was wonderful, not action packed but her prose was gorgeous.

Put some space between Penman's Welsh trilogy and the Brothers Quartet -- that might help. I read them too close together and the brothers might have suffered for that.

Now I'll hype my favorite author of medieval fiction (next best thing to time travel), http://www.amazon.com/Medieval-Fictio...


Ginny I couldn't have expressed my own feelings about this book better. This is exactly how I felt about it. I even counted down the pages like you did.

Worst of all, I wasted almost week and a half of my two week vacation reading this. I feel like I've been duped. I want my reading time back!


message 5: by Lois (last edited May 05, 2010 05:02PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lois Wow, your comments were almost as long as the book! Sorry, just kidding. I bought this one a year ago, and was finally going to give it a try, but now reading these reviews has me a bit skittish, so I'm thinking twice, and might hold off yet, cuz I'm in the mood for a really good read. However, since this is by the same guy who wrote "Eye Of The Needle" which I really enjoyed, I guess I'll give it a shot. Wish me luck!


Kelly It 'tis not very often that I come across a historical novel that I CAN actually throw in the garbage. Just glad I am not the only suffragette here. Hahah


Steven Teasdale Thanks for the review. It certainly seems to reflect my experience so far. I am about 500 pages in and am seriously considering quitting the book, something I almost never do. I am having a very very hard time stomaching the overly pendantic prose (especially his constant need to explain conversations) and the harlequin romance style sex scenes, to say nothing of what appears to be Follet's obsession with rape. I agree with you that this could have been a great novel, but never came close to the promise and, indeed, hype. I think I'll quit while I'm ahead and consider Eco's The Name of the Rose instead.


Francine The Name of the Rose is much better - I don't blame you for giving up on it. So, have you (given up on it, I mean)? Good luck finding the next good book!


Allison This is how I felt! I kept plodding through, I guess thinking it would improve. Two-dimensional characters and poor writing style. Perhaps even a starker contrast, as I had just finished East of Eden before this.


Elizabeth Wallace Your description of how the writing style was lacking was SPOT ON to how I felt, I couldn't have put it better.


Marti Lewis I'm 66% through it and agree with you. Relieved that I'm not alone. I found some of the passages very crudely written. Expected much more about building the cathedral.


message 12: by Cass (new) - rated it 1 star

Cass Great review. I am finding some parts interesting but every so often either a woman walks by and suddenly it is out of character smut, or a building appears and then the author forgets he is a author writing a book and thinks he is an architect talking to a client.


message 13: by Lin (new) - rated it 3 stars

Lin No point in writing my review since you summed up my thoughts exactly! Well put.


Francine Lin wrote: "No point in writing my review since you summed up my thoughts exactly! Well put."

Thank you! I really thought this work was flawed. He tried, but it was just seriously flawed.


message 15: by Tracey (new)

Tracey Thank you so much for writing this. I've dragged myself to page 450 after a friend begged me to read 'her favourite book'. Life's too short for horrible writing, so I'm going to stop now. I couldn't care less what happens in the end.


Francine Tracey wrote: "Thank you so much for writing this. I've dragged myself to page 450 after a friend begged me to read 'her favourite book'. Life's too short for horrible writing, so I'm going to stop now. I couldn'..."

I read this because my husband said I would "love" it...sadly, it was the reverse. I applaud you for having the wherewithal to stop. I couldn't, no matter how much I wanted to! It was like watching a train wreck in (very) slow motion.


message 17: by Tracey (new)

Tracey Francine wrote: "Tracey wrote: "Thank you so much for writing this. I've dragged myself to page 450 after a friend begged me to read 'her favourite book'. Life's too short for horrible writing, so I'm going to stop..."

Thanks for the support. Don't know what I'll say to my book club. I'll have to temper my review so as to tread lightly on feelings. Back to The Tiger's Wife, now.


Bookmaniac70 Thank you for taking your time and writing such a detailed review! I`m struggling with it right now and so far share exactly your thoughts about style and plot development. I wonder should I leave it? Perhaps yes. I have read far better historical novels.


Francine As much as I would like to say leave it, I'm a completionist so no matter how much I hate something, I slog through it. (Probably a bad idea as this makes me dislike that thing more...which isn't fair.) If you do complete it, good luck (maybe your opinion will change?) and if you don't, kudos to you for curtailing your own suffering! :-)


message 20: by Matt (new) - added it

Matt I just abandoned this book after 60 pages. I think because I realized the book was going to pan out to be as bad as everything you say in your review. In that short amount of pages it struck me as a poorly written, poorly edited mess consisting of a so-so story, mediocre narration and poorly integrated (shoved in really) long-winded explanations of architecture.


Francine Matt wrote: "I just abandoned this book after 60 pages. I think because I realized the book was going to pan out to be as bad as everything you say in your review. In that short amount of pages it struck me as ..."

Yes, it was really horrible. I don't think he spent any time at all doing a lot of research. Some people have also indicated that he wanted this novel to be a paean to his love of architecture but he fell short of as well. You just saved yourself 900+ pages of aggravation!


message 22: by Ted (last edited Aug 26, 2012 10:48PM) (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ted Well, I'll be one of the few readers who both did like the book, and also liked (very much) this review.

Why did I like the book? I'm pretty forgiving of style, if the story interests me I can read a book (fiction) regardless of style inadequacies. I did find the story interesting, although I also pretty much had the same feelings about the characterization as Francine did (I couldn't have expressed them as well as she did).

That said, the review is tremendous, Francine describes why she didn't like the book superbly and convincingly. I think it is a great review if it can warn people who like it off the book, because it is such a long work, requires a significant investment of time to get through. If I had read this review first I would not have wanted to read the book, but I probably would have at least tried it anyway, because it was given to me.

Francine's complaint about the historical inaccuracies really made me wince. If I knew as much as she does about the period of the novel, I couldn't have forced myself to complete the book at all. Thus my only criticism, not of the review, but of Francine. Francine, why did you finish the book? Next time this happens, I would personally recommend that you just stop reading and take up a different book. Life is too short.

My daughter used to have a hangup where if she started a book, no matter how long, no matter how much she disliked it, she would force herself to finish. On the way the time she spent reading for pleasure would diminish drastically, cause it was such a chore to go back to the book. I think she was finally able to drop that bad habit of having to finish a book you don't like.


Bookmaniac70 I enjoy this discussion a lot:-)). I`m still reading the book- it will linger for long, as I read it only for 20 minutes a day while commuting to work ( at home I have other titles for reading). Well, it gives me some pleasure to read it, especially after I became accustomed to its slow pace. But it`s hard to ignore some of its main shortcomings- very narrow story line, simple plotting and two dimensional characters.


message 24: by Francine (last edited Feb 05, 2012 10:40AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

Francine Ted wrote: "Thus my only criticism, not of the review, but of Francine. Francine, why did you finish the book? Next time this happens, I would personally recommend that you just stop reading and take up a different book. Life is too short...."

Ted, I wholeheartedly agree with you! I acknowledge this to be one of my shortcomings as well (and my husband has tried many times to get me to stop reading something that I am obviously not enjoying). One of the reasons why I couldn't just let it go is because I am a completist at heart. I'm the type of person who stays until the credits have rolled in any movie, only because I want to pay my respects to all the people who were involved. I may not like something, but I do want to acknowledge that accomplishment and the work that people have done.

I respect the fact that people put so much into writing and getting their works published. If I ever got published, I would hope that people paid the same respect towards my work. Obviously, everyone wants to have good reviews, but this isn't always possible. While bad reviews can smart, hopefully, the author can learn from them and make a better piece of work the next time (who knows...if I ever get published, maybe I won't have as thick a skin as I claim to have right now and I'll be reduced to a crying lump in a corner!) :-)

As I started my review, I did say that I didn't hate the book -- I applauded the fact that Ken Follett wanted to create an epic. Having said that, I know that this was Follett's first foray into the middle ages. It was a good try, but unfortunately, he fell short. He continued on with World Without End; I didn't read this, and while part of me wants to know if he got better with time and newer research, part of me also doesn't want to blast him again. Once was enough, for me. I will also say that Follett may have been picked on by me (unfortunately), as I read this book very shortly after receiving my masters, where my focus was on medieval lit and history. It sort of wasn't a fair fight...

The other reason why I continued to read it is because even though I may not have liked it, I kept waiting for something redeeming or fantastic to happen (this happens occasionally!). I think if I only read books that I enjoyed and gave up on things that I didn't like from the beginning, then I'd have missed out on many wonderful little gems out there. That, and the fact that it gives me a look into why there are so many others out there who may have liked something I didn't. If others like it, there has to be a reason, and in many cases, I know that my dislike of something will put me in the minority. And I'm okay with that.

So while I agree that life is short, this is also one of the things that spices up life (well, my life, at least since I don't live large). It keeps things interesting. My reading Follett has helped me see what mistakes I shouldn't make, what tropes will work, how others may react to characterization and theme and other things like that. In short, it's helped me become better.

Thanks for the feedback! I liked your review a lot and relish these kinds of discussions. :-)


Francine Bookmaniac70 wrote: "I enjoy this discussion a lot:-)). I`m still reading the book- it will linger for long, as I read it only for 20 minutes a day while commuting to work ( at home I have other titles for reading). We..."

Have fun reading! At the end of the day, that's why we read - it's an escape and it's meant to give pleasure. :-)


Petra X smokin' hot I have the book but never attempted it. Now I never will.


Francine Petra X wrote: "I have the book but never attempted it. Now I never will."

My hubby had the book and really enjoyed it, and I bought into the hype. Unfortunately, he and I didn't see eye to eye.


message 28: by Lynn (new) - added it

Lynn McMillen Why dont you tell us how you really feel....lol. Thanks for the comments


message 29: by Alex (new) - rated it 5 stars

Alex Another ad nausem diatribe on why someone didn't like a book. Kudos to your enenry level--I just don't have the energy to spend this much time (first writing the review, then answering seemingly each and every response to it) to a book I didn't care about.
Personally, and yes I know this sounds harsh, I think you like the attention.


message 30: by Josh (new) - rated it 5 stars

Josh Smythe The person who worte this review must find no enjoyment in life and I must admit I wouldn't either if I viewed the world in the cynical and overly-critical light as the hypocritical author of this review so clearly does. Pillars of the Earth is an EPIC tale that kept me enthralled to the very last chapter, does it really matter if it is not as historically accurate as you claim? It falls under the genre historical FICTION for a reason.


message 31: by Ted (new) - rated it 3 stars

Ted Historical fiction is a genre which people enjoy reading because it portrays the past accurately, at least within the limitations of a novel. (In this manner they gain insight and knowledge of that past, without having to read some dry old non-fiction historical tome.) Otherwise it is just FICTION, not HISTORICAL FICTION. I'm not sure why the last two posters are wasting their valuable time blasting someone's review that they don't agree with. Is something important riding on how much individual readers like a novel?


Francine Ted wrote: "Historical fiction is a genre which people enjoy reading because it portrays the past accurately, at least within the limitations of a novel. (In this manner they gain insight and knowledge of tha..."

Thanks, Ted. Much appreciated.


Ellamenohpee exactly.


Stephanie Thanks Alex and Tyrone


Jessie yup.


message 36: by Judy (new)

Judy I love to read anything and everything. So many people told me this was the best book they ever read! I felt like such a failure, was i missing something, i thought it was the worst....and kept going back to it thinking a fresh look might tell me what was so great....finally gave up, watched the miniseries on HBO and didn't even care for that :)


Francine Judy wrote: "...watched the miniseries on HBO and didn't even care for that :)"

:-)

I never saw the miniseries and I don't really have a desire to. Reading is such a personal thing, and what works for many won't necessarily always work for others. I thought I was missing something, but it's just personal preference.


Huixian Your point about the poor characterization is spot on. I was telling my hubby how terrible the characters are. The villains are so villainous to the point of being ludicrous. I enjoyed this book as I would a trashy soapish story, but as historical fiction go, I'd stick to Bernard Cornwell and Robyn Young.


Francine Huixian wrote: "Your point about the poor characterization is spot on. I was telling my hubby how terrible the characters are. The villains are so villainous to the point of being ludicrous. I enjoyed this book..."

Thank you, Huixian - I love Bernard Cornwell. He's such a fantastic storyteller and he knows how to craft multidimensional characters. I must admit, I've never read Robyn Young and will have to look up her work one of these days.


Huixian My hubby and I are both big Bernard Cornwell fans. His Saxon series is my favorite :) Robyn Young is not quite on par with him, but her Templar series is a decent read. I think her Robert Bruce series is better (some parts of the Templar series were veering into soap opera territory), but I've only read book 1.

Yes, my biggest issue with Pillars is the one dimensional characters. The good are too good, the bad are too bad. He should learn a thing or two from George R R Martin. That guy is fantastic with his characters.


message 41: by Lisa (new) - rated it 1 star

Lisa THIS IS EXACTLY RIGHT. Far too long, everything tied together, magically everyone knows each other, all built around characters you don't care about because they have no dimensions. Precisely.


Francine Thanks, Lisa!


message 43: by E (last edited Jan 13, 2013 05:58AM) (new) - rated it 1 star

E St Totally agree with you, a perfect review in my opinion!

I hate the fact that I actually read this horrid book one Christmas, and just really suffered through it, hoping it would get better which it never did.

Absolutely horrid book.


Francine E wrote: "Totally agree with you, a perfect review in my opinion!

I hate the fact that I actually read this horrid book one Christmas, and just really suffered through it, hoping it would get better which i..."


Ooh...over Christmas?? That's horrible! :-P Hope it didn't totally ruin the holidays...


message 45: by Majumdar (new)

Majumdar Anusha can u suggest ur opinion on The Fall of the Giants


Victoria I quit reading 60 pages before the end. Couldn't stand it any longer. A male friend had recommended me this book, and I don't get how he thought it was the best book ever! He even said he was planning reading it again!!! OMG


Ictoagsn My biggest gripe was certainly the causality problem the book had. Follet's fingerprints are all over the place, and it makes the world feel unrealistic, and occasionally downright silly. There were also couple of lines that were so bad I laughed out loud. Characterization is continually flawed as well; everyone plays roles. The two hundred some odd pages devoted entirely to exactly HOW evil William is unnecessary and often comic in it's heavy-handedness.

That being said, it certainly isn't a dull book. I think approached as a piece of pop-fiction it's got plenty of redeeming qualities. It's just not the great literature it's made out to be.


Francine Ictoagsn wrote: "...I think approached as a piece of pop-fiction it's got plenty of redeeming qualities. It's just not the great literature it's made out to be. "

Hmmm...interesting concept. You make a good (and valid) point there. It's been awhile since I read this, but at the time, everyone was saying how Pillars was just great lit (my hubby included). I guess I looked at it that way and it came up short.

Don't get me wrong; my opinion still hasn't changed, but maybe I wouldn't have felt as strongly (read: disappointed, cheated) if someone had said "Approach it as you would the GI Joe or Transformer movies. Don't go in expecting anything profound; just sit there and enjoy it for what it is." If someone had said that to me before I slogged through a thousand pages, maybe it wouldn't have been as bad.


message 49: by Heather (new)

Heather I am on Ch 2 and downloaded from the library. No way I will finish in two weeks. Glad to know I'm not the only one who realized early on this was predictable, historically inaccurate, with shallow characters. ugh. I think I will go download something else.


Francine Heather wrote: "I am on Ch 2 and downloaded from the library. No way I will finish in two weeks. Glad to know I'm not the only one who realized early on this was predictable, historically inaccurate, with shallow..."

Good luck if you do decide to finish it! There are definitely better books out there.


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