Thursday, March 21, 2013

Book Review: A World Without End

Powell's Books
Barnes & Noble

Ken Follett - © 2007

I loved Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and was thrilled when my husband found it has a sequel --of sorts. AWWE is also set in the fictional English town of Kingsbridge, about 150 years later in AD 1327. Several of the main characters are descendants of our heroes from Pillars.

Fourteenth Century Europe was a lively place historically speaking, but a deathly place for those that lived during that time. It was a time of the Black Death that ravaged Europe killing about half the population. It was also the beginning of the Hundred Years War between England and France. Like Pillars, this fictional story is threaded through historical events and beaded with factual details creating an utterly compelling tapestry that is at once lovely and horribly ugly. I was left with a feeling for what life was like for the people who lived (survived?) during those times. For the first time, I’m truly thankful to be alive in our modern world (medicine, judicial system, equality, welfare, economy) even with its many flaws.

Four pre-adolescent children, Gwenda, Merthin, Ralph and Caris witness a knight being ambushed by two men-at-arms in the forest near Kingsbridge village. With Ralph’s help the knight, Sir Thomas Langley, defeats the two men.  Merthin helps the knight bury what turns out to be the historical Fieschi Letter. The children’s fate remain intertwined from that day forward.

The beauty of this book lies in the depth of the historical research. Through each of the main characters we learn different aspects of daily life, social structures and economy. The many dozens of minor characters fill out all 1181 pages beautifully.

Through Merthin’s eyes we see the wonders of medieval architecture and Europe. He and Caris develop a maddening and sometimes just annoying romance that lasts the duration of the story.

Through Caris, who is the daughter of a prosperous wool merchant we learn about the economy and hierarchy of craftsmen of medieval England. Such as how the craft guilds operated (and from Merthin as well) and how apprentices were used. We also see how weavers and dyers worked and how their lives and their work are one. It is no wonder they were named for their livelihood, Caris Wooler, Merthin Builder, Dick Brewer, they are very much what they do.

Also through Caris we learn about the operation and hierarchy of the church and the medicine they practiced. The prevalent use of animal dung in poultices for “bringing forth the pus” and how patients were diagnosed with evil humours which were treated by bleeding pint after pint of their life’s blood. It was common for someone to be treated for a broken arm, then later die of some unknowable infection. Innovation in medicine was heavily discouraged and anyone who tried risked being charged with witchcraft or blasphemy. A priory hospital was a truly terrifying place.

Through Gwenda’s eyes we see what life is like for the daughter of a landless laborer. Summers of backbreaking labor in someone else’s fields and winters of picking pockets and enduring starvation. It is baby brothers and sisters dying because your mother didn’t have enough to eat to maintain her milk supply. After Gwenda marries we see life for a serf of a nobleman. How they could only grow what the lords declared, how they paid their taxes and were required to labor on their lord’s fields as well as their own. They essentially belonged to him and were treated as such. For the first time I understand why people flocked to the wilderness of the Americas simply for the promise of owning their own land.

Through Ralph’s eyes, we see the inner working of the nobility class and how one rises through the ranks. We also see the horror of King Edward III’s Battle of Crécy and Battle of Blanchetaque to reclaim Gascony. Ralph rises from squire to Earl of Shiring through equal parts dumb luck and ruthlessness.

By the story’s end in the year 1361, the bad guys are dead, the good guys are happy-ish and the buried letter is revealed, in a somewhat anticlimactic fashion.


A first I felt the characters were obvious derivatives of the Pillars characters. Merthin is clearly Jack, for whom I suspect the author has a particular affection. Caris is Aliena, Ralph is a cross between Richard and William... So much so, that I referred to Merthin as Jack in my mind to keep the names straight as I got to know the characters. However, by the end of the story, they succeeded in forming their own identity in my imagination.

He and I share a tendency to be overly verbose. However at least I am aware of it. He wastes page after page recapping past events. I DESPISE THAT! It feels condescending. He also takes an extraordinarily long time to get around to making a point; then he takes it and lays it on the sidewalk for you to step in over and over again. Dammit! I already stepped in that pile twice already! One particularly wet pile was hearing how Caris wouldn't marry Merthin for fear of spending her life as a slave to him and their future children. I think stating that once is plenty, and perhaps it could go unsaid and just revealed in dialogue or her actions. This is a technique called “show don’t tell” from which he could benefit using. As a wife and mother myself, I would have been able to sympathize with those feelings, if I wasn't so tired of wiping my shoes in the grass.

He occasionally uses modern idioms in dialogue and in his narration. In one case, he wrote of Ralph’s reluctance to invite his parents to live in with him at Tench Hall because they would “cramp his style”. (Another opportunity for use of the show-don’t-tell axiom.) A petty thing for sure, but my illusion of living alongside the people of medieval England shattered and suddenly here I was, in the 21st century reading a book. Guess I better go start a load of laundry.

Missed Opportunities for Redemption
I was disappointed when the two primary villains Godwyn and Ralph died. Their deaths were punitively gruesome, however I was hoping for some kind of growth or redemption. We spend a lot of time in each of their point of view’s and both while both did vile acts, I was still hoping for something meaningful to come out of their lives.

Godwyn, the Prior of Kingsbridge was not an evil man, but he was arrogant and prideful. I was hoping he would be stripped of those attributes through some sort of suffering or some first hand exposure to what people sacrifice for those they love. Then he'd live out his life in a very humble subservient way or perhaps he could have saved the day somehow to someone else's glory.

Ralph, I’m afraid had to go. However, I was hoping there would be some meaning to it. Throughout the story he is self-centered, self-serving and utterly without conscience. Once he discovers Gwenda’s son Sam is his own, there are flickers of something almost like love. I was hoping Follett would fan that into a flame inspiring Ralph to perhaps fall in love with Gwenda (true love, not ruthless-take-what-I-want love) and die in some altercation in which he sacrifices himself for Gwenda or Sam or both. He still dies, but we would see that man he could have been if something more than his killing instinct had been nurtured and praised.

At one point while ranting about some aspect of this book, Charley said, “I’m sorry you’re not liking this book.”

“What? No, I’m loving it!”

At times I was passionately angry with characters, his writing, the way the plot was going, because I was all in! I couldn't (willingly) put this book down. I would almost subconsciously make excuses to get a moment to read. “Took Gabs a little while longer to fall asleep tonight.” “Girls I’m a bit tired, I’m going to rest for a few moments and read a bit.” Those thousand pages were gone in a flash. The historic detail, the lifelike characters, the engaging story made the words come off the page and swirl into full color life, complete with fresh breezes lilting through trees full of the scent of grass and blossoms, stifling rooms reeking of shit and death, and the wonder of living in a time long past that is part of our composition today.


  1. Great book. I'll have to disagree with you on Godwyn's fate, however - I was quite happy to see him get what he had coming. I'll admit, though, that I am predisposed to hatred of religious leadership of all types - I'm not certain that kind of power to persuade men's spiritual beliefs (and thereby controlling their physical lives) can be wielded by very many people to good end. Even those that start out with good intentions seem to end up rotten as a GMO apple once they catch on to what their influence can do.

    Ralph was evil too, but at least his was an honest evil and I don't think he needed the self-deception of religion to hide behind his machinations. His was driven by ambition and I think he owned that pretty well.

    I'm all for redemption, but in my eyes, there's a line one can cross that makes such niceties nearly unattainable. Would you say that Sir Thomas' son (cant remember the young king's name) found a degree of redemption by the end? I've debated myself on that and still am unsure.

    What I love most about Follett's writing is the historical context and details. My ancestors came to England as part of William the Conqueror's Norman invasion and held various positions and titles mostly in Gloucestershire all the way through the late 1600s. Books like this with such wonderful historical depictions always help me put color and context to the family history.

    Not sure how I missed finding your blog before, Amy, but am glad I did. I always knew you were a good writer, but didn't realize just how much so until now. We still miss you here at the mountain...

  2. How did I miss this comment?! I was just cruising back through my old posts and found this one...

    Charley feels the same way as you do about Godwyn. He was a douche, he deserved to die. I guess I'm one of those people who always believes--to a fault perhaps--that there is hope for someone.
    I agree with you about churches with power. Power attracts the kind of men who crave it. So much so that they’ll play dirty to get it; almost excluding the possibility that anyone truly virtuous stands a chance of being elected. One of the many reasons I'm a vehement supporter of the separation of church and state. A single religion could never fairly represent a population. And suddenly political enemies are found to be witches or warlocks to their utter pain and demise. Power corrupts religion. A church is supposed to be a humble institution. I think the Catholic's forgot that somewhere along the line.

    I went to a Catholic service for a wedding--tripped me out. Everybody responded in monotone unison. Charley went to a Catholic elementary school and had difficulty not responding. I caught him a few times muttering along. Quit it--that’s creepy!

    I love the historical detail too. I can't learn by rote. Some people thrive on learning disparate facts and details and can keep it all sorted. I learn by experience, concept and context, three things with which Follet writes amazingly well. The experiences aren't my own but they storytelling and characters put right in there with them.

    BTW - I'm glad you found my blog. :)