When Henry, the King of England, dies without leaving a clear heir, the Catholic church and the royalty of Britain jostle for power through the medium of subtle political machinations. Humble monk Philip finds himself at the center of a gambit for power, but is destined to forever remain a pawn of powerful forces? Meanwhile, Tom, a Master Builder, longs to work on the grandest of all possible stone structures: a cathedral. Their destinies intertwine as secular life, holy orders and political struggle come to a head in the small town of Kingsbridge.
By the end of the first chapter of Pillars of the Earth, I was sure I’d found a ringer for fans of A Game of Thrones, which was first published about eight years after Pillars. The following chapters did not disappoint: with smatterings of gore and sexuality overlaying intricate, world-changing machinations, this story could just as well have taken place in Westeros. Even the literary structure is similar, skipping from one character to the next as it keeps up with current events in a wider reality. However, this story is much more engaged with the lives of ordinary people than Martin’s famous series is; most of the characters in Game of Thrones are nobles who are free to scheme and fight pretty much all the time. The closest corrollary in Pillars of the Earth is the thuggish William Hamleigh, who is consistently defeated by humble self-made people. In many ways, the details of the wool trade are more engaging than some of the antics of a medieval fantasy. Here, we can empathize with the businessperson. The story seems realer. In fact, Pillars is based on an actual time in England’s history, though the town at its center is fictional.
The only quibble that I have with the story is that everything works out all right again and again. In fact, the good guys win so consistently that it becomes predictable. Follett sets up a situation – maybe someone has been charged with an oath – and there’s no question that it’ll work out because the lovers have ended up together, the right man got the job at the priory, the good son inherited his father’s reputation, etc. etc. Everything comes up heads in the end, even if the path there is a little gruesome or sensational. Personally, I like a little more uncertainty in my outcome. (As in the case of the aforementioned Game of Thrones, for example.) However, just because this feels a bit safe and pat to me doesn’t mean it won’t appeal to other readers. There’s a lot to recommend a good outcome. Suffice to say that if you like drama but want it to work out, you’ll probably love Pillars of the Earth. In fact, even if happy endings kind of annoy you, you’ll probably still like it. It’s engaging and sheds some light on a time period that most people don’t necessarily think of as “real.”
It’s hardly a secret that Pillars is worth a read, but given the popularity of certain Medieval-inspired fantasy epics at the moment, it’s worth a revisit. If nothing else, it’ll tide you over until winter finally gets here.