A while ago I posted an anticipitory post about this book, written by Ken Follett. I just finished it up last night (after putting it aside for a few months). It took a while -- this book is definitely a "bug squasher" at 1014 pages -- and if you liked Pillars of the Earth then you'll probably like this book too.
The gist is that the descendants of the original families from Pillars of the Earth undergo their own struggles, this time spanning the 14th Century rather than the 12th. Again the cathedral at Kingsbridge is a central character...this time we see what became of the structure, and the efforts to expand/improve the structure.
This time the talented builder is Merthin, his uppity love interest is Caris, and Merthin's brother Ralph is the military type thug of the book. There are a number of other supporting characters, but these are the ones we primarily follow.
One of the reasons I was excited about this book is that it covers one of my favorite periods of history (ironically, Pillars of the Earth is also set during one of my favorite periods, the early-mid 12th century). While the book has the same sort of biases as the predecessor, it was still an enjoyable read.
Like the previous book, World Without End sets up a mystery to be solved at the very end. Here an injured knight named Thomas has a document in his posession that could rock the foundations of England's Monarchy. Only a few people know where this document is hidden. Otherwise, much of the book is about the life and times of the main characters.
One critical event in this book that I felt the author did not handle quite so well is the Black death of 1349-1351. Really, this should have been a central aspect of the book, but in the end I felt it tangenital to the characters. The problem I have is that, in the context of the era, the Plague was sort of the "Nuclear Apocalypse" of the Middle Ages. Entire villages were wiped out, and Europe lost a significant fraction of its population. The book really doesn't convey this well, and as we see the characters deal with it, the emotional impact was not as great as it could be. Really, one of the main characters should have died of it to really have the gravitas such an event would rightly evoke. Alas it was not to be.
One interesting aspect of this book is that Follett seems to have essentially recycled the characters from his previous book: Merthin is the brilliant and morally steady builder, Caris is the talented woman that flaunts societal norms and the church, and Ralph the military thug. It creates a certain sense of continuity, but really I would have liked characters more differentiated than this, and when I say the book feels like a retread, it really is. Especially bothersome is Follett's bias against military type characters: whe had thugs in the last book, we have thugs in this one. It would have been refreshing to follow a military character that had a positive impact on the book, rather than a negative one. While there were some redeeming characters (Gwenda's son Sam for example), there were plenty that were not.
Some historical issues I have this time around: Sam as mentioned above is revealed to be actually Ralph's son (yes, that's a spoiler, but of course I warned you...). When Ralph learns of this, he decides to make Sam a squire. Would something like this have happened historically? Perhaps. I think it would have been more interesting and a bit more plausable if Ralph granted Sam a Sergeantry (that is, a fief that is below the stature of a full manorial knight's fee). He could have displayed a bit of Ralphs malicious sense of irony then by making Sam's father and mother tenants on his fief. Not to be though...
And the mystery? It is revealed at the end that the document Thomas had been carrying was a letter...from none other than King Edward II. In it he reveals that Edward did not die, but instead fled the kingdom in secret and took up another life. Really? Hmmm...I'm really not sure about this one. Of course this does not contradict the historical record (especially since Edward doesn't pop up and cry "Here I am!"), but is it in his character?
In the end an enjoyable book. Like any historical fiction there were a few problems. But if you like Follett, or want to read some decent historical fiction,World Without End (and of course Pillars of the Earth wouldn't be bad places to start...