Book Review: World Without End by Ken Follett

In 1989 Ken Follett astonished the literary world with The Pillars of the Earth, a sweeping epic novel set in twelfth-century England centered on the building of a cathedral and many of the hundreds of lives it affected. Critics were overwhelmed; "it will hold you, fascinate you, surround you" (Chicago Tribune) and readers everywhere hoped for a sequel.

World Without End takes place in the same town of Kingsbridge, two centuries after the townspeople finished building the exquisite Gothic cathedral that was at the heart of The Pillars of the Earth. The cathedral and the priory are again at the center of a web of love and hate, greed and pride, ambition and revenge, but this sequel stands on its own. This time the men and women of an extraordinary cast of characters find themselves at a crossroad of new ideas about medicine, commerce, architecture, and justice. In a world where proponents of the old ways fiercely battle those with progressive minds, the intrigue and tension quickly reach a boiling point against the devastating backdrop of the greatest natural disaster ever to strike the human race: the Black Death.

As adults, their lives will be braided together by ambition, lvoe, greed and revenge.  They will see prosperity and famine, plague and war.  One boy will travel the world over but come home in the end; the other will be a powerful, corrupt nobleman.  One girl will defy the might of the medieval church; the other will pursue an impossible love.  And always they will live under the long shadow of the unexplained killing they witnessed on that fateful childhood day.

Three years in the writing, and nearly eighteen years since its predecessor, World Without End breathes new life into the epic historical novel and once again shows that Ken Follett is a masterful author writing at the top of his craft.

Wow, where to start?  After reading and loving The Pillars of the Earth I just didn't think World Without End could be as good.  But it was!  I will address my three complaints about the book first.

I finished World Without End after reading for six to seven hours per day for three days (I was out sick, people!).  At 1014 pages, this is definitely not a fast read.  I can read about 100 pages per hour of YA and most adult books.  My pace for a Ken Follett historical novel is about 50-60 pages per hour.  This is due to the fact that his historical novels have large pages with small print and also because the writing is sometimes technical.  By technical, I mean that Follett includes detailed descriptions of architecture, machinery (example, he tells us how a fulling machine is built; FYI a fulling machine is used to turn sheep's wool into cloth), and warfare that seemed to slow me down a little.  I'm interested in love, not masonry!

My second complaint is that Follett reminds the reader of events that take place earlier in the book.  I'm not stupid, Ken.  You don't need to tell me these things twice.  For example, one of the main character's parents died early on in the book.  Later in the book, we read, "He went alone because his parents were long dead."  No kidding!  I remember when they died!  It reminds me of when you're reading a series and at the beginning of each book there is a short recap of what's happened in previous books.  Now, probably if I had not read World Without End in such a short time span, I might have appreciated these friendly reminders.

My last complaint is that there is a lot of sex in this book; much more than The Pillars of the Earth.  And it's not all sweet and romantic.  There is rape, public lewdness and homosexuality among the nuns and monks.  The descriptions are not as explicit as most popular novels today, but in the historical context it was a little surprising.  I have to think that Follett believes the sex to be indicative of the time period he's writing in (the 1300's).

Okay, that's the end of my complaints.  Here's what I liked about the book.  World Without End tells the story of two girls and two boys from the ages of 10-12 years old up to their 40's.  We have other central characters too, such as Godwyn the monk and Edmund Wooler, but the main focus of the book is the four children.  I love a book with parallel stories.  I just love following more than one character at once.  World Without End is written in the third person but isn't choppy like some third person books are.  I loved that we get to see the characters grow up and mature.  They all encounter hardships (war, death, disappointed hopes and dreams, the black plague) but never stop fighting and never give up hope. My favorite character was Gwenda.  I just love a good survivor, especially one who suffers from unrequited love. 

I really enjoyed reading about the advances in medicine and what people believed to be cures (bloodletting, poultices made with dung, balancing the "humours" of the body).  Physicians believed that diseases could be transmitted by looking at a sick person because the eyes have "feelers" that touch things in order to see them.  Isn't that wild?  When the black plague befalls the country, one of the nuns wants to wear a mask over her nose and mouth to prevent transmission of the disease and this is treated like heresy! 

I also enjoyed reading about the politics of the church.  There was definitely more corruption in World Without End than there was in The Pillars of the Earth.  Of course, the fact that The Pillars of the Earth's main character was a humble and worthy prior may have something to do with that. 

I am in awe of Follett's plot.  He weaves the stories together in a way that they all make sense and seem cohesive.  I love his one-line paragraphs (example:  "As they walked out, the jailer sneezed."  This refers to the start of the second wave of the black plague).  They are kind of snarky and usually contain big plot twists. 

The last thing I enjoyed reading about was the architecture.  Now, I know I said the descriptions were hard to read, which they were but they were also really informative and practical to the story.  I'm not a fan of architecture, but reading about how they had to build things back then was pretty fascinating to me.

When I finished the book, I was left with a feeling of hope.  I think the ending is totally appropriate.  It's not so perfect that it's unrealistic.  I think that's the special thing about Follett's writing---he makes you feel what his characters are feeling. 
Just One Gripe:
A woman's naked body was described just one too many times.

The Best Thing About This Book:
The excellent plot---there were more plot twists than a Candyland game.

Appropriate for a younger audience:
Rape, murder, warfare, homosexuality, drunkenness---no.

Characters:  5/5
Plot:  5/5
Setting/Imagery:  5/5
Originality:  5/5
Ending:  5/5
Total Score:  25/25

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  1. Another positive review and this one is on my TBR list. I bought the book at a local book sale so it keeps beckoning me to READ IT!
    I promise to get on to it after the great feedback on your review. Follet can do no wrong.. Love his earlier works Key to Rebecca, etc... The whole old world spy to come to life again.
    Have you read these?

  2. No, and I need to! The only Follett books I've read are Pillars, World Without End, and A Dangerous Fortune. You'll LOVE World---to me it was a faster read than Pillars and a little bit grittier characters.

  3. Ok, this is interesting. I've heard someone read this before, but didn't pay attention. This is going into my TBR list.

    The Romance Reviews

  4. Will there be another ‘Kingsbridge’ novel – a sequel to The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End?


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