My Rating – 5 out of 5
Plot Summary of the Book Review
Going back about a 1000 years, Ken Follett sets about laying out the prequel to the Pillars of the Earth – The Kingsbridge Saga. A beautifully written novel which transports the reader to an era we are extremely unfamiliar with – in terms of the lack of modernity as we know it today – but rife with everything we are familiar with in human society – trust, betrayal, love, lust, family ties, intrigue, conspiracy, lies, deceit, evil and sometimes the innate decency of a few wins over the cunning of many.
When the Roman Empire declined, Britain went backward. As the Roman villas crumbled, the people built one-room wooden dwellings without chimneys. The technology of Roman pottery—important for storing food—was mostly lost. Literacy declined. This period is sometimes called the Dark Ages, and progress was painfully slow for five hundred years. Then, at last, things started to change . . .Ken Follett’s introduction to the novel
The book starts in 997 CE, in the town of Coombe, where a young Edgar – the Boatbuilders’ son, is dreaming of new life with beloved Sungifu, a married woman. In the morning he’s supposed to elope with her, the Vikings strike his town. They loot, set fire to the town and kill many, among them are Edgar’s love interest and his father. A depressed Edgar and his remaining family have lost all they had and are sent to a farm near Dreng’s Ferry to start their new life.
Meanwhile, across the channel, in Normandy, a young Ragna – daughter of Count Hubert, has charted a course for her life with her lofty dreams. She’s learnt to rule, with fairness, empathy and tough love. While her mother Genevieve, wants to marry her off to Guillaume, Ragna strains against the bonds of a patriarchal society and wants to marry her intellectual equal.
Enter Wilwulf, the English Ealdorman from Shiring who visits Count Hubert to forge a treaty, preventing the Vikings from availing the ports of Normandy, before attacking the English villages across the channel. A whirlwind romance ensues between the charismatic Wilf and the Lady Ragna, before Wilf is called away to England.
Much to Ragna’s delight, Wilf sends back his half-brother Wynstan to ask for the Lady Ragna’s hand from her father. Ragna and her family accept and with much fanfare, Ragna arrives in Shiring as the Ealdorman’s wife, expecting a life of love and happiness ahead of her. Alas, that was not to be…
The gloom and the chill within the massive stone walls gave her a sense of eternity. Earthly troubles were temporary, even the worst of them, the church seemed to say.Ken Follett
In a parallel string, Edgar and his family have made a moderate success of the near-infertile farm they were given by Wynstan, and slowly start getting immersed in the little hamlet of Dreng’s Ferry. Edgar is a straight forward young man, with his principles and ideas of fairness and right and wrong.
But the world is not so simple, and Dreng, the owner of the local alehouse and distant cousin of the Noblemen of Shiring, makes his life miserable. He has two wives and a slave girl, Blod, who he prostitutes to all and sundry. Edgar tries to stand up for Blod, but most of the times he is helpless in front of Dreng’s cruelty as he is well connected to the Noblemen of Shiring.
The trio of Wilwulf and his two half brothers Wynstan and Wigelm, control most of the commerce and activities of Shiring and nearby areas with an iron fist. While Wilf is much enamored with Ragna, Bishop Wynstan and Wigelm indulge in debauchery and power struggles to remain important.
In the grand scheme of things, human nature is shown in its best and worst. Slavery, exploitation and evil in all form manifests in most of the characters and for the most part it does seem that evil will win over good. Though this book is set a 1000 years ago, dirty politics, power struggles and cruelty don’t seem to have changed much, innately. Men in power, even priests, are all susceptible to the lure of power and money. That, combined with greed, leads to all the wars and misery that mankind has witnessed till date.
The Book covers all ills of human nature, demonstrating amply that some traits have been timeless. Misogyny, patriarchy, domestic violence, male chauvinism and insecurity that comes with the realization that women are intellectually no less (mostly superior too) than the men around them. With that comes the urge to subvert that superiority by any means possible, even violence.
Summary of the Book Review
Ken Follett paints a vast landscape, spread over a decade or so but the issues and events reach out to us centuries later. Its a familiar tale of human existence, beautifully sketched. Little wonder that this 800 page tome took over two years to reach the readers, and every page is engrossing. Not once do you feel the narrative dragging or the pace slowing down. He involves the reader so well into his story, that many a time you would be inclined to reach out to help, to strangle the evil emanating from the characters!
For all fans of historical fiction, this is a must-read book, taking one back to the early centuries of mankind. For other readers, it can serve as an eye opener – more humanity changes, more we remain the same…. Only technology has evolved many times over, our characters have evolved but undergone any sea change.
In principio erat Verbum, et Verbum erat apud Deum, et Deus erat Verbum.” In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Aldred felt he could spend his life trying to comprehend that mystery.Ken Follett
I recommend strongly to all readers of this book review to go ahead and read the book, it is immersive and involved, I loved reading it, I hope you will too!
*I hope you enjoyed reading this Book Review as much as I loved writing it!