Monday, February 11, 2008

Ken Follett: World Without End

Fourteenth century England is not a gentle time. The word of the master is absolute law. Corporal and capital punishment is routine for the smallest infractions. And failure to pay debts, especially to the local lord, is unforgivable. Dangers abound in lawlessness, accidents, and illness. Most health issues are fatal, because medicine is based in dogma, not science.

Ken Follett’s World Without End tells a wonderful story of the times. The story takes place in the same town, centered around the same cathedral that centered in his earlier novel, The Pillars of the Earth. Only we are two centuries later. But ultimately the theme is similar. Good people, dedicated to their dreams, honest in their dealings, can prevail against all odds and in terrible times. (Although I do need to re-read The Pillars of the Earth to remember and enjoy the details.)

We meet four children at the beginning, whose interwoven adult stories make up the rest of the book. Gwenda is the daughter of a poor family, just being launched on the dangerous career as a thief. But she also learns that there is a better path. Caris is the daughter of a leading wool merchant, and has dreams of being a doctor. But she learns that only men – clergy – are allowed to be doctors. Merthin, the son of a poor knight has dreams of martial glory, but although he is exceedingly smart, he is small. His bother Ralph on the other hand isn’t all that bright, but he is big and strong. Much to Merthin’s dismay, and Ralph’s delight, the local Lord, Earl Roland, takes Ralph on as a squire, and orders Merthin to be apprenticed to a builder. Merthin doesn’t know it, but anyone who has read The Pillars of the Earth knows that being a builder is the key to success in a medieval Follett novel.

I don’t think I’m revealing too much to say that Merthin and Caris fall in love, but encounter countless obstacles to being together. Despite unjust treatment, Merthin perseveres to become a great builder. And also despite the obstacles, Caris becomes a great healer. Ralph becomes a brute, and Gwenda pursues an impossible love. Throw in war, plague, political intrigue, and economic disaster, and you get a sense of the context of the book.

World Without End really is a great read. The supporting cast is wonderful, full of loveable and despicable characters. The color of the time shines through. But overriding it all is the glory of the human spirit.

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