Read in July, 2008 — I own a copy
I did not hate this book (hate would be too strong a word, and I can't hate it because I applaud the fact that Ken Follett attempted to write an epic novel). But I did not like it. I didn't like it from the start; his writing style hit me like a brick, but Jim thoroughly enjoyed the book that I kept trying to convince myself that I ought to give it a chance, hoping it would get better. When I was about 500 pages in, he saw how miserable I was and asked why I didn't just stop reading it, but at that point, I was invested in it; I had spent all that time getting that far, that I needed to finish it, and I couldn't wait to come to the end. I kept counting down: "Only 450 pages left; only 300 to go; last 200 pages...yay, I have 50 pages left!" Those fifty pages were the toughest to get through. By the time I was at the end, I thought it was a wasted effort - both on his part and mine.
It's so much easier to explicate on what I did not like because there were so many things:
- I loathed the writing style (he vacillated between pages and pages of highly complex architectural discourses to third-grade level simple sentences grouped into short paragraphs). Sometimes it was bearable. Other times, I wanted to pull my hair out. There were times when I felt the only time he came alive as an author was when he was discussing architecture, but these parts were so didactic in nature that it couldn't hold my interest for long periods of time.
- I did not like the author's narrative style. He had to tie everything together (causality was so prevalent throughout the text that I wondered how he didn't work in how the killing of a fly affected events 60 years later). Every single storyline was wrapped up - too neatly for my liking, in some cases. Everyone was tied to someone else (it was like playing Six Degrees); every single character had to have a denouement; every little plot twist had to be explained; closure had to be achieved, no matter how preposterous the circumstances, over time and space.
- The characterization was poor. In fact, it was appalling how two-dimensional these characters were. Good people were good. Bad people were loathsome. As time went on, the good were always suffering one thing or another; they were put upon; they were harrassed; they were constantly challenged and put to the test like Job (something Follett actually used as a sermon!). The badfolk became more oppressive over time; they were not only detestable, but they had absolutely no redeeming qualities. And to go with a typical medieval stereotype, the good were always excessively beautiful, honorable, intelligent (geniuses or savants, even!) - and if they weren't rich, they would be at the end (I half expected Havelok the Dane and his refrigerator mouth to pop up somewhere, proving once and for all that in the medieval period, to be good was to have the purest light shining out of your mouth each time you opened it). Nevertheless, the bad became uglier, became more despotic, scheming throughout life to get the better of their enemies (the goodfolk). But in the end, good always triumphed over evil; those who could, repented and were forgiven. Those who couldn't, were killed off somehow, because apparently, death is the only way an evil person gets his (or her) dues. And then everyone had a happy ending. I hate happy endings when they're so obviously contrived. And this work was so elaborately, exhaustively, thoroughly contrived. (Maybe it's not too late for me to change my mind and say I hated it. *grin*)
- Historically speaking, there was so much left to be desired. Granted, this novel was written two decades ago, and there have been new discoveries about the medieval period since Follett started his research. But he got it all wrong anyhow. His idea of medieval life was so...off, that it hurt my head to continue reading sometimes. I had to pause periodically and rant to Jim about what I currently found off-putting (for example, there weren't many literate people at the time; at the time this novel was set, there was still a distinct divide between England and Wales; reading and writing were two separate skill sets, and people who knew how to read did not necessarily know how to write and vice versa; orality was a prevalent part of storytelling back then and books not so much and yet somehow, he conflated much of both; manuscript writing was either orally dictated or copied tediously by the monks - his concept of a scriptorium was incomplete, defective - and there has been so much written about this that it saddened me; he used modern translations of medieval poetical/verse works and couldn't explain even alliterative verse form effectively - I even wonder if he knew what it was; his understanding of the languages of the period - Old English, Middle English, Latin, Norman French, Old French, Middle French, etc. - and what was spoken by the aristocrats vs. the peasants vs. the growing middle classes disgusts me; he showed a lack of understanding of medieval law, medieval rights, the social classes, gender roles, even the tales and legends of the period, in both England and France; priests were quite low on the totem pole, in terms of the religious hierarchy, and were quite disparaged yet somehow, that didn't quite come across in this novel...I could go on and on, but I won't).
And the historical part of the novel I just found lacking. There are enough histories and chronicles, contemporaneously written, of the time, that he did not have to deviate much from history. There is so much written about the period between the death of Henry I through the civil wars between the Empress Matilda and King Stephen, to the time that Henry II ascended the throne (including the martyrdom of Thomas a Beckett), that I don't quite understand how he couldn't have mined the chronicles for better material. I understand that this is why it's called historical fiction, and that there will always be some element of fiction interspersed with historical fact. But the fictional aspects usually have to do with surrounding characters and situations that bolster the history. The fiction is not necessarily to the history itself. Many times, when writing historical fiction, the author has to beware the pitfalls of creating a revisionist retelling, interspersing his or her own ideals or beliefs of what should have been to what was. If this novel had been marketed as a revisionary narrative, it would have been okay. But it wasn't. I'm just glad that the historical aspect of the novel just served as the background and not the real story. Because then, I probably would've stopped reading.
The premise was a good one and held a lot of promise. It could've been a great historical epic had it been handled by a more assured writer. By someone who was more of a visionary, someone who had the patience to do exhaustive research or who knew how to craft richly developed characters. It needed an author who understood the epic genre, who knew how to mold the epic, who knew how to keep the narrative going, seemlessly binding time with narration and the human condition, without resorting to stereotypes and grating drama. And most importantly, it needed someone who understood when the story had been told; that while there will always be other stories to tell, that each book has its own natural end, and that these stories may not belong in this book.
Ken Follett may be a bestselling author of suspense novels (and even historical fiction such as Pillars of the Earth and World without End), but he is no writer of epics. Compared to writers of historical fiction such as Edward Rutherford, James Michener, Bernard Cornwell or Margaret George, Ken Follett has a long way to go.