This book was actually published back in the late 1980s and didn't make a big deal. I wasn't aware of it then, probably because I had two little toddlers to chase after. It came back on the best seller list some years back. I picked up the paper back from Costco but it stayed on my shelf from 2008 to around Christmas time of this year.
Why? Ken Follett usually writes thrillers and I wasn't sure how he'd do with historical fiction. The Pillars of the Earth has to do with the building of a cathedral in the Middle Ages and that just didn't catch my interest much. To top it off, the size of the book was daunting!
What changed my mind? Reading Sarum and London by Edward Rutherfurd. Reading about the Middle Ages could be compelling, I realized, and it was about time I gave Pillars a chance. I'm so glad I did!
As for a thriller writer being able to write historical fiction in an exciting way ... well, no doubt about it, Ken Follett can do it!
The story follows a small group of characters through the years of building the cathedral. There's Prior Philip of Kingsbridge, who has the dream and ambition of having the cathedral built. He's a good man, stern and just, but he has ambition. There's Tom Builder, the mason who's always wanted to build a cathedral and his second wife, Ellen, considered by many to be a witch. Characters who start out as children and grow up throughout the story including Jack, Ellen's son who has a mysterious background, and Aliena, daughter of an earl who runs afoul of the king. There are many secondary characters, several of whom develop into enemies of Tom, Aliena and Jack.
Of course, the building of the cathedral doesn't go smoothly. Philip's enemies do everything in their power to stymy the progress. Politics--a conflict between the king of England, Stephen, and one who wanted to be queen, Maud. Out of the conflict comes King Henry II.
I learned a lot from this book but it wasn't tedious. The book was exciting and very hard to put down. You can never be sure what to expect. A major character isn't necessarily "safe" from death or mayhem and I like those kinds of shocks and surprises. I'm half way through the sequel, World Without End. I highly recommend this book!