The peasants are revolting. Some, anyway. Others—the good-hearted varlets, churls and nickpurses of Follett’s latest—are just fine.
In a departure from his usual taut, economical procedurals (Whiteout, 2004, etc.), Follett revisits the Middle Ages in what amounts to a sort of sequel to The Pillars of the Earth (1989). The story is leisurely but never slow, turning in the shadow of the great provincial cathedral in the backwater of Kingsbridge, the fraught construction of which was the ostensible subject of the first novel. Now, in the 1330s, the cathedral is a going concern, populated by the same folks who figured in its making: intriguing clerics, sometimes clueless nobles and salt-of-the-earth types. One of the last is a resourceful young girl—and Follett’s women are always resourceful, more so than the menfolk—who liberates the overflowing purse of one of those nobles. Her father has already lost a hand for thievery, but that’s an insufficient deterrent in a time of hunger, and a time when the lords “were frequently away: at war, in Parliament, fighting lawsuits, or just attending on their earl or king.” Thus the need for watchful if greedy bailiffs and tough sheriffs, who make Gwenda’s grown-up life challenging. Follett has a nice eye for the sometimes silly clash of the classes and the aspirations of the small to become large, as with one aspiring prior who “had only a vague idea of what he would do with such power, but he felt strongly that he belonged in some elevated position in life.” Alas, woe meets some of those who strive, a fact that touches off a neat little mystery at the beginning of the book, one that plays its way out across the years and implicates dozens of characters.
A lively entertainment for fans of The Once and Future King, The Lord of the Rings and other multilayered epics.