Sun, Nov 18, 2007 - Page 18 News List

[BOOK REVIEW] 'World Without End' tells of Kingsbridge in the time of cholera

Though it takes place 200 years after 'The Pillars of the Earth,' Ken Follett's newest book is set in the same medieval town, in the shadow of the same church

By Tom Walker  /  NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , DENVER, COLORADO

WORLD WITHOUT END
Ken Follett
1024 pages
Dutton Adult

In these times of technological overdrive and instant sensory override, it is somehow comforting to run into a novel with enough heft and literary muscle to force you to spend more than a nanosecond taking it all in.

Thriller writer Ken Follett, known more for his espionage novels, has crafted a tale set in medieval England that has more than a touch of soap opera. It also has a healthy dose of ecclesiastical intrigue, historical fiction and just the right amount of love in a time of cholera. It's a potent and potable mixture, one you can savor.

World Without End comes in at more than 1,000 pages, but don't let that weigh you down. It just means there is that much more to enjoy.

Many of Follett's World Without End characters are sympathetic. Then - any novel needs conflict of some sort - there are those that are easy to abhor, and there are many emotional connections in between the extremes.

In addition, Follett tells a story that runs the gamut of life in the Middle Ages, and he does so in such a way that we are not only captivated but also educated. What else could you ask for?

Follett started this story 18 years ago with The Pillars of the Earth, a wildly successful novel that became a best seller in many languages. It was centered on the construction of a mammoth cathedral in Kingsbridge, England, and on the people, both religious and lay, who thrived there.

World Without End is also centered in Kingsbridge, but 200 years after the events in Pillars. The cathedral is still there and it still dominates, not only physically, but also spiritually and commercially. Without it, there would be no Kingsbridge.

It's a world of monks, nuns and priors; knights and their squires; serfs and nobility. It's a feudal world trying to come into the light, but having difficulty voiding the superstitions and beliefs of a darker past. It's a world where men are men and women know it - well, most of them know it, anyway.

It's a world of passions where set-piece battles between armored, sword-swinging soldiers poleaxing each other are common and even lesser violence can rear its ugly head at a moment's notice. It's a world where love and hate are thinly disguised. It's a world of power politics pitted against shady back-room shenanigans.

Into that world, Follett brings us a group of people from differing walks of life, all of whom must come in contact with each other over the several decades spanned in the novel.

There are Merthin the builder and Caris, the daughter of the town's leading merchant, the young lovers who spend much of the novel knowing they should be together but finding themselves pulled apart by circumstances.

There is Merthin's loutish brother, Ralph, a classic villain who manages somehow to have not one redeeming quality and who manages to foul the lives of just about everyone he comes in contact with.

There's the simple but proud Gwenda, a friend of Caris and Merthin since childhood, who can teach her betters what pride and a personal constitution can and should mean.

Then there are all the clergymen - and they are mostly men, of course. With a few notable exceptions they are a conniving, weasely, duplicitous bunch who care more about personal power than matters of the spirit.

But Caris and Merthin take center stage as the main drivers of the action. When the novel opens, they are children. She's of the elite of Kingsbridge while Merthin is the son of a knight whose fortunes have fallen.

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