Sunday, April 20, 2008

Just how epic is an epic? - World Without End

I first read Ken Follett's "Pillars of the Earth" back in the early 90's. I enjoy historical fiction and I was very interested in medieval history, so the book was right up my alley. I found the stories of the Kingsbridge priory and the surrounding village fascinating. I loved the way Follett wove the lives of his fictional characters with the lives of historical figures. In addition Follett's interest in medieval architecture was very apparent and the book provided insight into how cathedrals were built back in the 1100's. I found the book to be a great read and i was one of the first epic novels I actually finished.

When I heard that Follett was returning toe Kingsbridge in his next book "World Without End" I was excited. He jumps ahead to the 1300's, famous for the 100 years war and the black plague. In this book Follett focuses more on his fictional characters, pulling the reader into their world, their strife, and their triumphs. At times some of the plot twists seem a bit over the top (how many times can that many horrible things happen to one person), but it works to keep you reading just to see how these resourceful characters will get out of it. With a story spanning about 30 years in the lives of at least four main characters, you've got a rich mine of plot, tragedy and triumph to dig through. I enjoyed it as much as I did the previous book.

While I was reading this book I studied the structure of it. How did Follett weave these stories together and keep them moving and the reader reading at the same time? There were constant perils in medieval England and this offers Follett plenty of obstacles to throw in front of his characters. He uses natural forces, human weakness, politics, superstition and just plain bad luck to keep the story moving. In addition he creates characters that are interesting and keeps them interesting as the story goes along. Sometimes you know just how a character will react to a situation, but Follett's keeps you off balance by introducing an element you didn't suspect.

One of the most interesting parts of the book from a writers stand point is the first section dealing with our main characters as children at the fleece fair. This mini adventure introduces all our lead characters, puts them under stress so you get to see their true colors and introduces a plot point that will have ramifications throughout the novel. In a way it seems obvious to start with the characters when they are children, but this also feeds into plotting. Follett's first section gives you enough information to be interested in the characters, have an idea of what life in the 1300s in England was like and plant the seed of a mystery that will continue to pop up in the novel. A very solid start to an epic.

What are your favorite epic novels? How did they begin? Are they steady page turners or slower and more immersive? Have you read "Pillars of the Earth" and/or "World Without End"?

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