This week, we’re looking at two epic historical fiction novels that have been on my list for a while.
The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett
Ken Follett is known worldwide as the master of split-second suspense, but his most beloved and bestselling book tells the magnificent tale of a twelfth-century monk driven to do the seemingly impossible: build the greatest Gothic cathedral the world has ever known.
Everything readers expect from Follett is here: intrigue, fast-paced action, and passionate romance. But what makes The Pillars of the Earth extraordinary is the time—the twelfth century; the place—feudal England; and the subject—the building of a glorious cathedral. Follett has re-created the crude, flamboyant England of the Middle Ages in every detail. The vast forests, the walled towns, the castles, and the monasteries become a familiar landscape. Against this richly imagined and intricately interwoven backdrop, filled with the ravages of war and the rhythms of daily life, the master storyteller draws the reader irresistibly into the intertwined lives of his characters—into their dreams, their labors, and their loves: Tom, the master builder; Aliena, the ravishingly beautiful noblewoman; Philip, the prior of Kingsbridge; Jack, the artist in stone; and Ellen, the woman of the forest who casts a terrifying curse. From humble stonemason to imperious monarch, each character is brought vividly to life.
The building of the cathedral, with the almost eerie artistry of the unschooled stonemasons, is the center of the drama. Around the site of the construction, Follett weaves a story of betrayal, revenge, and love, which begins with the public hanging of an innocent man and ends with the humiliation of a king.
At once a sensuous and endearing love story and an epic that shines with the fierce spirit of a passionate age, The Pillars of the Earth is without a doubt Ken Follett’s masterpiece.
I have always seen The Pillars of the Earth and its ‘sequel’, World Without End, in bookstores and libraries, and always meant to read them, as they’re widely considered Ken Follett’s masterpieces. But the recent Starz miniseries reminded me that it was still on my list and still wanted to be read.
Teresa at Shelf Love thought it grew too predictable, spent too much time on sex scenes, and definitely needed to be trimmed down. Eva at A Striped Armchair thoroughly enjoyed it, but also thought some of the sex scenes, particularly rape scenes, were overdone. Due to the fact it barely misses being a thousand pages long, I think I might save this for travel.
The Pillars of the Earth was released on September 7, 1989.
Dreaming the Eagle by Manda Scott
Dreaming the Eagle is the first part of the gloriously imagined epic trilogy of the life of Boudica.
Boudica means Bringer of Victory (from the early Celtic word “boudeg”). She is the last defender of the Celtic culture in Britain; the only woman openly to lead her warriors into battle and to stand successfully against the might of Imperial Rome — and triumph.
It is 33 AD and eleven-year-old Breaca (later named Boudica), the red-haired daughter of one of the leaders of the Eceni tribe, is on the cusp between girl and womanhood. She longs to be a Dreamer, a mystical leader who can foretell the future, but having killed the man who has attacked and killed her mother, she has proven herself a warrior. Dreaming the Eagle is also the story of the two men Boudica loves most: Caradoc, outstanding warrior and inspirational leader; and Bàn, her half-brother, who longs to be a warrior, though he is manifestly a Dreamer, possibly the finest in his tribe’s history. Bàn becomes the Druid whose eventual return to the Celts is Boudica’s salvation.
Dreaming the Eagle is full of brilliantly realised, luminous scenes as the narrative sweeps effortlessly from the epic — where battle scenes are huge, bloody, and action-packed — to the intimate. Manda Scott plunges us into the unforgettable world of tribal Britain in the years before the Roman invasion: a world of druids and dreamers and the magic of the gods where the natural world is as much a character as any of the people who live within it, a world of warriors who fight for honour as much as victory, a world of passion, courage and spectacular heroism pitched against overwhelming odds.
Dreaming the Eagle stunningly recreates the roots of a story so powerful its impact has lasted through the ages.
Boudica is awesome, which I think everyone knows and appreciates–nothing like a warrior queen handing the Romans their behinds. I honestly have no clue where I picked this up, but I think I didn’t hear about the focus on Boudica’s lover, which I’m a little ‘eh’ on at the moment. Still, if it’s done well, I’ll like it.
Val’s at Val’s Random Comments thought it had a bit too much padding and didn’t resolve properly. Roz Kaveney at the Independent enjoyed Scott’s handle on the Celts’ relationship to their animals, but could find her writing a bit cluttered. Hopefully, Dreaming the Eagle doesn’t fall into traps first books in a series often fall into.
Dreaming the Eagle was released on May 27, 2003.