Thirty-one years ago, Ken Follett set aside his thriller writing to lay the foundations of a remarkable historical novel which would become a worldwide phenomenon selling over 27 million copies.
The Pillars of the Earth – a truly epic tale about the building of a 12th century cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge – stunned both readers and critics with its rich period detail, extensive architectural research, and brilliant storytelling, and was turned into a major television series, produced by Ridley Scott, in 2010.
Avid fans had to wait until 2007 for the sequel, World Without End, another voluminous blockbuster which followed the fortunes of Kingsbridge families in the 14th century. And ten years later, Follett weighed in again with, A Column of Fire, a magnificent Kingsbridge drama set amidst the tumultuous events of the Tudor period.
Now this master storyteller has wound back the clock to the 10th century and the end of the Dark Ages for a thrilling, action-packed prequel which transports us back to the brutal days when England was under attack from the Welsh and the Vikings, and the hardy folk of a tiny hamlet on the south coast sowed the seeds of a town that would one day become the mighty cathedral city of Kingsbridge.
And it’s an unforgettable journey which once again highlights Follett’s grasp of both history and humans, his ability to weave together fact and fiction, and the power of his prodigious imagination which allows him to fill in a largely unrecorded period of the past when Britain was finally starting to see the light after a steep 500-year decline in the aftermath of the Romans’ departure.
It’s 997and life is hard in the small coastal hamlet of Combe. The poor are slaves, while those with power wield it harshly, bending justice according to their will, and often in conflict with their weak and vacillating King Ethelred. With his grip on the country fragile and with no clear rule of law, only chaos reigns in Ethelred’s kingdom.
In this uncertain world, three people’s lives are set to become intertwined. Eighteen-year-old Edgar is the youngest son of Combe’s boatbuilder. With his intuitive sense of how forms fit together to make a stable structure, Edgar has a natural talent and dreams of building himself a better future.
But on the night he plans to run away with his married lover, a devastating Viking raid shatters his life. With Combe burned down, the shipyard destroyed, his precious boat stolen, and their stock of timber reduced to ash, Edgar and what is left of his family stake their future on an abandoned farm near the river at a hamlet called Dreng’s Ferry.
Across the sea, the Norman Count of Cherbourg’s daughter, Lady Ragna, has reached the age where she must marry or face life in a nunnery. Haughty, clever and so straight talking that she scares off any suitors, Ragna has always wanted a romance that made her ‘heart sing,’ but is warned by her mother that ‘we women must settle for what we can.’
When the tall, powerful and self-confident Englishman, Wilwulf, ealdorman of Shiring, visits her father, Ragna falls for his ‘masculine magnetism’ and despite his initial indifference to her, they marry and she sets sail for a new beginning.
And it’s in the town of Shiring, where Ragna makes her new home with Wilwulf, that a young monk, Brother Aldred, has a dream to bring ‘learning and understanding where there was blind ignorance’ and to turn humble Shiring abbey into a centre of scholarship admired throughout Europe.
But the young Norman noblewoman finds her life in England shockingly different to her expectations, and soon Ragna, Edgar and Aldred will each come into dangerous conflict with ruthless Bishop Wynstan who is prepared to do anything to increase his wealth and power.
As always with this gifted writer, The Evening and the Morning is a full-on Follett experience from first page to last, an 850-page tome packed with vivid, vital characters – good people, bad people, slaves and nobles, lechers and lovers, friends and foes, murderers and men of the cloth – whose lives play out in an endless sequence of breathtaking, bone-crunching adventures and personal dramas.
And in what has become the author’s trademark style, real history is overlaid by a vast, sweeping landscape in which England is a country in turmoil, besieged by enemies on all sides, and with a weak king unable to bring order to the anarchy and bloodshed.
This is a land where unscrupulous, greedy, cruel and lascivious men of influence are able to bend justice and embark on a ruthless power battle; but there is also a role for those men and women who are brave, determined, loyal and visionary, and who can use their talents to start to build a town and a better future based on trade, neighbourliness and learning.
The earthiness and hard-hitting realities of everyday existence, and the overriding influence of religion and politics in this period, provide the backbone to a fast-paced, immersive story which encompasses all human life… love affairs, birth, marriage, politicking, warfare, betrayal, infanticide, murder and rape.
Written with Follett’s gift for creating unmissable drama on a giant stage, this is a story that flows seamlessly and enjoyably through its hundreds of pages, but be aware… the temptation to stay in sequence and follow up with a return visit to his masterpiece, The Pillars of the Earth, could prove hard to resist!
(Macmillan, hardback, £25)