Series Review: Kingsbridge by Ken Follett

Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series is a sweeping narrative of England’s history, focused around one town and it’s cathedral. The Pillars of the Earth was the first book in the series, written in 1989, and Follett has added to the series over the last 30 years, most recently adding The Evening and the Morning, a prequel story that looks at the beginning of the town of Kingsbridge.

The Evening and the Morning takes place in the Dark Ages in England. Poverty is rampant, Vikings are raiding and destroying, and everyone is engaged in intrigue and manipulation to try to advance themselves and their goals. Edgar is a young builder who has lost everything in a Viking raid. He tries to build himself a new life in the small village of Dreng’s Ferry, but his idealism leaves him disenchanted with the small village and its overlords. Ragna is a Norman noblewoman who has crossed the sea for love. But she soon comes face-to-face with the differences between the countries and must face the consequences of her naivety. Meanwhile, Ragna’s new husband’s brothers are constantly scheming for more power and wealth, within the church and without. They won’t hesitate to take any action that puts them ahead and the intrigue quickly reaches into the lives of Ragna, Edgar, and all the people living in and around Dreng’s Ferry.

The Pillars of the Earth follows Tom Builder, a master builder and mason looking for work after being laid off by a wealthy (and jilted) nobleman. Tom and his family set out to look for work and Tom nurses his dream of eventually designing and building a cathedral– a master builder’s Holy Grail project. Finally landing in Kingsbridge, Tom’s dream is in constant peril from political intrigues and civil war. Kingsbridge’s prior, Philip, does his best to stand against evil nobles and power-hungry church officials, but like everyone, Philip finds England’s dragging civil war keeps everything uncertain and in constant jeopardy. Covering a period of nearly 40 years (1135 to 1174), The Pillars of the Earth encompasses several stories of love, heartache, perseverance, and intrigue. It contains themes of good versus evil, right versus wrong, self versus others, and it covers all the grey areas in between.

World Without End is the first book I read by Follett, and I was hooked. In the shadow of the cathedral built by Tom and Jack, a new generation is growing up while Kingsbridge seems to be falling down. Merthin is a carpenter and builder looking to get away from the strict confines of conventionality when one bad choice turns his whole life upside down and threatens the security of his love affair with Caris, a young independent woman. Caris, engaged herself in a battle against conventionality, tries to uncover a way to have everything she wants without giving up her freedom. But her freedom ends up becoming the price for her very life, and she must learn to accept that sometimes purpose is fulfilled in the least expected ways.

A Column of Fire is set in the thick of the religious wars erupting throughout Europe. Kingsbridge finds itself split between Catholicism and Protestantism, and Ned Willard aligns himself with Queen Elizabeth and her imperfect pursuit of religious tolerance. On the other side of the English Channel, Pierre Aumande is fighting to rise above his humble origins by making himself indispensable to the Catholic de Guise family as it strives to take control of the French crown. The two men use different techniques to achieve their same-but-opposite goals of keeping their people in power, but they aren’t always the ones who pay the price for their choices.

I was introduced to this series through the Starz miniseries based on World Without End. At that point, Follett had only written the two books and I devoured them quickly, though I do recall thinking they seemed very similar. However, the historic events around the main theme of the cathedral provided enough difference to keep the stories interesting. Each book includes essentially the same cast of characters–lovers separated by intrigue and/or society, religious zealots blinded to their sins because they believe they are serving God, a ruthless man striving to achieve his goal of nobility without a care for who gets trampled in the process. But though characters may be recycled, the story that surrounds them is different enough to make each book an interesting and engaging read.

The political intrigue and motivations throughout the series as a whole are a big part of what keeps it interesting. Though encompassing the themes, Follett doesn’t write basic “happily ever after” stories, instead giving his characters a lifetime of challenges and trials (and a lifetime of evil deeds, for some).

The Evening and the Morning was somewhat of a disappointment to me. Whereas the first two books in the series are full of description and fulfill the sometimes-tricky task of showing instead of telling, this prequel book felt very different. It’s a little challenging to describe, but the prose just felt plain and overly simplistic. In short, it seemed a little bit like Follett didn’t quite sink into the era of the story, and it showed.

The Pillars of the Earth was much as I remembered, an engaging story that moved along at a decent clip (though I did find myself often rechecking the aging of the characters throughout, to make sure it all lined up). Despite occasional slow spots and heavy architectural descriptions, the characters and motivations were realistic enough to make the book a quality read.

World Without End was also mostly as I remembered. It was a little surreal to read the book in the middle of a pandemic when one of the big plot points was the advent of the Black Plague throughout Europe. I found myself a little more exasperated with the characters, however, wanting to sit them down and sort them out.

A Column of Fire, though marketed as part of the series, really didn’t have a lot to do with Kingsbridge. The main characters visited, but spent most of their time moving the story along in other parts of Europe, as to be expected when writing around this period. But because of that, as well as all the historic events Follett incorporated, the book does feel quite different from the other books in the Kingsbridge series. I see Follett trying to use the same storytelling technique to make this book different than just a fictional retelling of religious history in Europe, but even as he does this, the at-times irrelevant threads of story get a little distracting from the general flow of the story. Overall, however, the book was enjoyable.

The series as a whole needs a couple disclaimers, however. Follett doesn’t balk at putting his characters through trauma and showing the dark, power-hungry side of certain men. As such, the series has many instances of violent rape and physical abuse, as well as scenes and descriptions of war and violence. Follett also uses profanity throughout the series (and I’ll admit, this is one thing that does bother me, because he will use words in modern ways, or just modern words, that are very inconsistent with the era of the book).

All in all, I still do enjoy the Kingsbridge series, despite it’s at times vulgar and explicit content. Follett devises characters that are real (down to their dense and irrational thought patterns!) and infuses his stories with intrigue that keeps you reading, even if 1,000 page books aren’t your thing. And though I’m not going to go into a comparison of the books versus the TV miniseries produced for some of these books, I do assure you the books are better.

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