The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett | Review
Publication: MacMillan 1989
Genre: Historical Fiction
Pages: 973 | Audio Length: 40 hours, 58 minutes
Formats: Paperback, Audiobook, eBook, Hardcover
Having a well-placed sex scene in any book can be absolutely great, don’t get me wrong. Yet Follett’s repeated use of steamy rollicks around misty forest floors mixed in with gruesome rape scenes seem to teeter on the edge of gratuitous descriptions of both violence and soft-porn levels of intimacy. I guess that’s life, isn’t it? (Rape should never be in that category, mind you.) George R. R. Martin uses explicit sex descriptions like this also, along with many other authors, so I guess maybe it’s time I pulled my head out from under Jane Austen’s skirts of propriety and got with the program (terrible, terrible metaphor, I know).
Honestly though, I found this book has so much more than heart-felt and heart-wrenching sex scenes (albeit all of them straight as could possibly be because, of course, non-binary sex wasn’t a thing until June 26, 2015…oh, oh dear!) to offer its readers. The crux of this epic really seems to be about overcoming impossible odds and maintaining some shred of integrity in the shadow of the ever-reaching arm of greed-driven deception and malice.
I’d like to give Follett a huge round of applause for the power and respect he manages to provide his female characters in this book. The women are portrayed not only as strong-willed (a quality when given to any characters other than heterosexual males usually becomes a vehicle for the shrew-stigma to take full charge), but also as intelligent, brave, and often leaders of events that end up advancing the welfare of themselves and their communities. He allows (and takes great measures to encourage) the women in his book to rise above the stereotypes that the more traditional masculine characters try to impose. After a particularly brutal rape, for example, Follett doesn’t have Aliena’s character stab her rapist to death. Instead, he allows the narrative to endow Aliena with the fortitude and economic savvy to pinch her adversary’s earldom out of the market completely, leaving him the destitute fool the reader knew him to be all along.
And the plot structure! This piece is truly an epic bit of storytelling, which Follett pulls off beautifully by knowing when to build his readers’ expectations around each of his multiple main characters, when to push a character toward action to move the story to the next big stake or goal-oriented adventure. Follett also seems to understand the value of making his readers wait for the bigger and better payoffs at the end . . . and that’s all the spoilers I’m going to allow myself regarding that topic. After finishing this one over the summer, I think I finally understand how the book has developed such a devoted cult following.