Daniel's Reviews > The Pillars of the Earth

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
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's review
Nov 15, 2011

it was ok

When a book offers nearly 1,000 pages of story, I expect, at the least, an epic sweep to the proceedings. Characters of interest are nice; characters with depth--even better. Some insight into the world around us and its many complicated workings would get me thinking--and I really like a book that makes me think. A fully-realized literary landscape--one that takes the reader to a place that can only exist in the printed word--would overjoy me. Big books offer a big promise: check out my story, and you just might get lost in something epic and awesome.

Oh, I got lost in "Pillars," alright--the same way that about 1,000 people can get lost in a full-sized college football stadium. BIG THINGS ARE GOING TO HAPPEN HERE! YOU WILL BE AMAZED! YOU WILL--what? This is the turn-out? Well, alright; since you're here, game on.

One thousand pages and about a fifty-year span of characters and events do not an epic make. Follett gives it his best--and when he is at his best, he writes fiction that is dramatic and easy to read. Unfortunately, he hits this note a finite number of times across the girth of this monster, and each instance lasts for but a few pages before getting lost in all the noise those thousand spectators are straining to make in the stadium.

Sadly, the more effort that Follett puts into the story, the smaller the returns. He throws in Church politics--and out comes a black-garbed villain who furrows his brow and plots evil doings and reaches for the waxed handle-bar mustache that begs to be there; he adds a selfish, landed Lord--and, voila, here is a rapist who can't get it up without beating the object of desire; he posits a visionary mason who wants to be build the best cathedral (ever) that England has (ever) seen--and here are a few elementary descriptions of architecture, along with a group of working-class underdogs that demand your sympathy.

If someone asked me to sum up this book in a single word, I would immediately reply with "obvious." Every character's motivation is tattooed on his forehead, and when opposing characters meet in the story, it is so very frustrating that they cannot just read the writing on the brow. Major events announce themselves well in advance, and their consequences come calling soon after. The themes at work swing through about four degrees of arc and sound a monotonous beat that plays alongside the tick-tocking of the clock and the turn of every page: evil is bad; courage is good; evil is bad; courage is good; evil is bad; courage is good...

For years, various people have recommended this book to me with varying amounts of adulation; and while I am glad that I finally picked it up, I am puzzled by its reception. Yes, it is readable; and yes, there are times when it is good fun. More than anything, however, "Pillars" is mediocre--sometimes relentlessly so. For such a large book, it is a shallow read--even for a mainstream book whose first purpose is to entertain.

Those thousand people giving it their all in that massive stadium? I feel bad for them: they wanted to be part of something epic and awesome--and I was ready to cheer with them.



I do not like to hate on a book, and when I write a review for a book that I have issues with, I try to keep things clean. That said, I couldn't let this gripe go. There is one offense that Follett commits in "Pillars" to a flagrant degree: that of inconsistent logic. A single example will serve to illustrate.

In the first part of "Pillars"--which, by the way, runs at about 280 pages in the recent trade edition that has the pretty cover--Tom Builder, the mason who is fated to build a cathedral, wanders throughout England with his family in tow and searches for work. Weeks and months and many dozens of pages go by without work or the hope of finding work, while Tom and his family grow more desperate by the day. Each time Tom and his family come across a sizable church or monastery, Tom asks after work:

Tom Builder (said in a mock British accent): "Please sir, may I have some work?"

Compassionate-yet-helpless Listener: "No work!"

TB (wait, he *is* British): "How about some soup for my family?"

CL: "No soup!"

TB: "But this is a church!"

CL: "Oh, right; ok, soup for one night--and then scram!"

This goes on for pages; and pages; and then more pages--until Tom finally does find work from the one clerical person in all of England who really does give a damn about the Lord and His teachings. Until that momentous, did-ya-see-that-coming-about-200-pages-ago event, it's tough going for Tom, his family, and reader alike.

The inconsistent logic? I'm getting to that.

Fast-forward to page 708, paragraph three, sentence number three (how do I know this? Because, out of all 980 pages, I marked this one with a little fold; why? Because, when I reached said sentence of said paragraph of said page, I just about banged my head against the nearest wall):

...there were a few who were from England originally and might be tempted to move back; and the others would spread the word, for it was every mason's duty to tell his brothers about new building sites.

What. The. Hell.

In the first third of this doorstopper, a main character wanders hither and yon looking for work without any idea of where it may be, while his family starves and perishes in the Winter weather; about a third further in, we learn that masons, in fact, look out for each other; and that they, in fact, keep each other in the know about these kinds of things. So, earlier, when Tom Builder wandered into that town where masons and craftsmen were putting the finishing touches on a cathedral; and when Tom asked after work, only to find out that it had been going on for the past ten years , and that the work was nearly finished--we, the readers, should have concluded that poor Tom is at the receiving end of a shit-sandwich line that always has hot, goopy poo for the serving.

Or: Follett really wanted to run his characters through the ringer before giving them something big and important to do, and he didn't worry about any conflict between the actions of his guiding hand and the metric tonne of period research that he fondly remembers in his introduction.

What's it gonna be: an organized workforce that takes care of its own; or a bassackward land of yesteryear where nobody talks any kind of scuttlebutt about anything of importance, leaving each family to figure shit out for themselves or die?

In the words of Eddie Izzard: cake, or death? Well, shit man, gimme the goddamned cake!

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Reading Progress

November 15, 2011 – Started Reading
November 15, 2011 – Shelved
November 15, 2011 –
page 75
November 15, 2011 –
page 75
7.71% "Sometimes this book heads into a thoughtful direction... ...and other times, it places a man--who just watched his life partner bleed out onto a forest floor, and who subsequently decided to commit infanticide--lying on a forest floor, when suddenly: a pagan hottie appears and jumps on our poor, bereaved hero. Sex is had. This book is rife with absurdity--and I am totally up for another 840 pages of this soap opera"
November 18, 2011 –
page 185
19.01% "Lots o' coin-ki-dinks in middle-aged Europe. I have long since come to terms with the fact that this is a huge soap opera with period costumes."
November 22, 2011 –
page 675
69.37% "I'm with Jacob on this one: the villain is way overdone in his villainous ways, to the point where I am more annoyed than anything else."
November 23, 2011 –
page 855
87.87% "Nearly done! Methinks that Sir Willy the Limp Wanker is about to get the just desserts that all soap opera villains eventually receive."
November 24, 2011 – Finished Reading
November 26, 2011 –
page 976
100% "Hallelujah: finished this 2 days ago."

Comments (showing 1-18)

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Jeffrey Keeten Daniel, You just saved me a pile of time. Thanks for taking the hit for the rest of us. The book is crossed off my list. I saw the mini-series and it was good enough that I was thinking about reading the book. Hayley Atwell may have influence my opinion by a star or two.

Daniel Jeffrey wrote: "Daniel, You just saved me a pile of time. Thanks for taking the hit for the rest of us. The book is crossed off my list. I saw the mini-series and it was good enough that I was thinking about r..."

You're welcome. If you have any future doubts, try out the first sixty pages, as they are indicative of the whole enchilada.

I have not seen the miniseries; I doubt that I ever will, given that I know the story. I take it that Atwell is purdy? I don't recognize the name.... What character does she play? Aliena?


Great review--it does make one wonder how this book would've turned out if Follett had written an epic instead of a soap opera. And good point in the postscript. I didn't notice that enormous glaring error, but that's mostly because I was coasting by that point in the story.

message 15: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Every character's motivation is tattooed on his forehead, and when opposing characters meet in the story, it is so very frustrating that they cannot just read the writing on the brow.

YES. Thank you. That totally put into words a feeling I have about many books. Nice turn of phrase, too.

Tom was a boring asshat and all his fellows were avoiding him.

message 14: by Thom (new) - rated it 3 stars

Thom Dunn Viewed as a ninth-grade level introduction to the Middle Ages, this isn't a bad book, but its stodgy, stephen-king-plodding prose falls far short of epic anything. It's big. It's long. It's jejune.

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

Thom Dunn That early-on scene of sexual healing was for me a major cringe . Maybe I just don't get out enough.

message 12: by Miriam (new)

Miriam Maybe sex with medieval masons just isn't your thing.

message 11: by Simeon (new) - added it

Simeon Who knew?

Jeffrey Keeten Daniel wrote: "Jeffrey wrote: "Daniel, You just saved me a pile of time. Thanks for taking the hit for the rest of us. The book is crossed off my list. I saw the mini-series and it was good enough that I was ..."

Yep she plays Aliena. She was the girl from Captain America. I can't imagine you taking the time for the mini-series after doing the heavy lifting on the book. Great Review.

message 9: by Shovelmonkey1 (new)

Shovelmonkey1 Is here an appropriate place to say I am a fan of your small-dog-in-coat avatar?

message 8: by Daniel (last edited Jan 03, 2012 04:52PM) (new) - rated it 2 stars

Daniel Absolutely. His name is Pancake, and he is my wise furry companion and my book-reading side-kick.

message 7: by Miriam (new)

Miriam That reminds me of "Kiki's delivery service" where she has the pancake-eating cat familiar.

Daniel That's funny, because although Pancake doesn't bark or whine (he's in fact very quiet) I still imagine him speaking volumes in a knowing, at times sardonic, voice. His personality definitely fits the Miyazaki mood.

message 5: by Miriam (new)

Miriam I love how Miyazaki conveys so much with expressions.

Daniel Me too. Miyazaki is the reigning king of coming up with cutesy characters that have a range of expressions through subtle animation. Hell, he is the king, period.

message 3: by Miriam (new)

Miriam He's done some pretty non-cutesy stuff, too.

Alex I've never bothered to write a 400-word review on a book I disliked as much you claim to.
If I don't like a book by the time I'm no more than 1/4 the way through it then I simply put it down and invest my time elsewhere. Don't pee on yourself and complain that you're wet. Similiarly don't "plod through 900+" pages and then foment about how disdainly you hated it

message 1: by Laura (new)

Laura Oh my gosh, this review was highly entertaining and well written. I hope you have a writing career! Part of me wants to read the book so I can enjoy your observations along with the story.

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