The Pillars of the Earth - John      Lee, Ken Follett I don’t know if I want to shake Ken Follett’s hand or wring his neck. I appreciate a compelling story with a good plot, which The Pillars of the Earth somehow manages to be despite some decided evidence to the contrary, but sometimes I wonder if I enjoyed picking this apart more than reading it.

It is obvious from the start that Follet is, at heart, a writer of thrillers, a genre best served in quick bursts at breathless speed. This behemoth takes the thriller tactic of building problem after problem and rushing to a finale and unfortunately prolongs it to the point that the pattern begins to read like S.O.S in morse code. I won’t travel over this particular analytical ground too long; it’s obvious many other reviewers have walked the path before me. I will say, after the initial 5 or 6 (or 10 or 20) difficulties are presented, stewed over and resolved, the repetition grows stale and the question quickly devolves from “how will they get out of this one?” to simply “when, and who is going to suffer horribly while it is happening?” Oh yes, it would seem that Follett really enjoys making his characters suffer, or he wouldn’t do it so damn much. I won’t go all wonky-feminist and shout about objectification and excessive cruelty to females (or maybe I just did?) but jeez, Follet, can’t a girl catch a break? Most of them are beautiful, with one glaring exception, but they are all smart, resourceful and much quicker on the uptake than most of the men around them. I wonder if they were made this way as recompense for their horrible treatment, or if they were somehow being punished for being so powerful and kick-ass in the first place?

I think Follett realized, sometime during the several years it took him to crank this out, that the pattern was becoming, well, a pattern, so he decided to throw in some prurient scenes of (mostly) senseless violence and voyeuristic sex. However, that became similarly predictable, with the exception of the cat Is it necessary to include all of the gory details of slowly murdering a house pet just to show that the character (who not too long ago brutally raped a young girl) is evil? I vote no. I get it, Follett’s trying to build a realistic medieval world full of good and evil, beauty and grief, but the problems are often simplistic and the solutions equally so, not the complicated web of alliances and gritty realism he seems to be trying so hard for.

Ok, now add some of the most anachronistic 12th century characters you can think of, and you have this fine mess of a novel. The strange thing is, I believe it is the anachronistic nature of many of the characters that made this novel, despite my earlier statements to the contrary, quite enjoyable. The real problem is that Follet set up a very convincing, brutal Middle Age England, and populated it with characters who don’t seem made for such a terrible place. Pious Philip is just too good to be true; Tom Builder is the ultimate kind-hearted “artist with a vision;” Jack is practically a savant; Aliena is gorgeous and independent (and doesn’t seem to age). The characters that break the mold and become more believable are the villains: the evil Hamleighs (William and Regan in particular), the arrogant Waleran, the vicious Alfred, but they still manage to be one-trick ponies.

I mentioned at the start that I appreciate a good plot, but what I really love is language, and that is Follett’s weakest area. The prose is plain and gets the job done, but often it is just plain dull, occasionally to the point of jarring me right out of the story.

The thing is, Follett may have (ab)used his will-they-won’t-they plotting devices ad nauseum, used and abused his characters with much the same intensity and written the book in the language of a high school creative writing student, but I still wanted to know how everything would turn out in the end, so just for the fact that he was able to interest me beyond my misgivings and irritations I give The Pillars of the Earth 3 stars. God help me, I'm even going to read the sequel.

*A note about format: I originally began reading this as an audio book, but there is something almost unbearable in listening to Follett’s (dare I call them loving) descriptions of rape and murder, so I often turned off my CD player and switched to my Kindle version; text can be skimmed, I don’t want to plug my ears and hum through an audio book. The narrator, John Lee, was excellent and differentiated the accents of various characters without being too hammy.