Book Review: World Without End, by Ken Follett
World Without End is a worthy follow-up to Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s epic tale of medieval cathedral building.
World Without End isn’t strictly a sequel, though; the novel still takes place in Kingsbridge, a fictional English city, but the story begins in 1327, 150 years after Pillars of the Earth leaves off. The main characters from the first book—particularly Jack Jackson, Lady Aliena, and Prior Philip—are remembered, and a few of the new characters are even descended from them, but the only true carryovers are the city and the cathedral.
The plot begins with a mystery that winds through the narrative: why is a knight pursued into the forest by two men, and after he kills them, why does he bury a secret letter and join the Kingsbridge monastery? But answering these questions isn’t Follett’s focus. He also doesn’t structure the story around a central building project like he did in Pillars of the Earth (although there are several similar endeavors in World Without End). Instead, Follett delves even further into the lives of his characters.
They’re generally not complex. Most of the leads are essentially the same people as adults as they were as children. And in terms of archetypes, there’s a fair bit of overlap with the first book—the leads include a clever builder, a brutish fighter, and an enterprising woman who chafes against conventional wisdom. But over the course of three decades, we see the protagonists overcome fresh obstacles and setbacks, just as Kingsbridge does. Decisions echo down through the years. Rivalries linger. Love blooms and withers and blooms again. You can’t help rooting for these people (the good ones, anyway).
Follett’s writing isn’t complicated either. Authors sometimes talk about employing windowpane prose, meaning prose that provides readers a portal into the story without getting in the way. In most cases, those panes still have a tint, and the floweriest versions look like full-on stained glass. But Follett’s phrasings are almost always transparent, to the point that he’s often telling emotions instead of demonstrating them: “Caris felt a familiar, painful jumble of anxiety and helplessness.” “Anthony’s flat opposition had left him feeling shocked.” “She felt as if the world was ending.” “It made him feel panicky.” Relationships sometimes develop in the same fashion—as the years progress, we’re suddenly informed that two people are together rather than seeing it happen.
But to be fair, Follett can’t show all of this; World Without End is over a thousand pages as it is. And I wouldn’t want to lose any of the history, large (like brushes with the Black Death) or small (like the explanation of how chirographs, a medieval form of record-keeping, were used to document certain transactions).
The personal history is what drives the story, though. Follett even has one of his protagonists reflect on this near the end as she views Kingsbridge from above: “The sight … made [her] marvel: each individual had a different life, every one of them rich and complex, with dramas in the past and challenges in the future, happy memories and secret sorrows, and a crowd of friends and enemies and loved ones.”
For more reviews like this one, sign up for Nick's monthly newsletter.