Wednesday, December 2, 2009

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I read an Oprah's Book Club selection - and I liked it! Honestly, however, Oprah's glowing endorsement of Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth did nothing to encourage my reading of this weighty tome. And while the historical subject matter (the construction of a Medieval cathedral) did pique my interest somewhat, the notion of reading over 900 pages dealing with Medieval monks did not. In fact, my interest in Follett's novel came about in an unusual way - through board games.

I'm a long-time fan of German (sometimes referred to as "designer") boardgames. If you're reading this and have never heard of such a thing, do yourself a favor and find a copy of the now-ubiquitous Settlers of Catan, play it, and then, I think, you'll begin to understand. In any case, a good friend of mine operates one of the major online retailers for boardgames (Boulder Games, if I may include a small plug), and I was visiting him one day when the boardgame of The Pillars of the Earth arrived. I had never heard of the novel at that point, and was fascinated by the idea of turning an historical novel into a large-scale strategy boardgame. In America, the idea of games based on licensed properties is nothing new. In fact, it's the butt of many jokes and considerable derision among the gaming community, as all too often these games are nothing more than oversimplified tripe with a movie title and characters pasted on. The Pillars of the Earth, however, was different from its American counterparts in many ways. First, of course, was its subject matter and depth/scope of play, but beyond that was an ambition to allow a player to actually play a role in a pivotal plot point from a novel, and that drove me to pick up the book and begin my journey through it.

There's little doubt that I expected a much drier book when I first started reading Pillars of the Earth. With a subject matter of cathedral building, how could it help but be a little dry? I could not have been more wrong in my initial assessment. While, yes, the framework of the plot does revolve around the building of a cathedral at the fictional Kingsbridge priory, Follett uses this as a device to tell a remarkable story about five central characters, whose lives often intersect at the most unusual and surprising of times. By focusing on in-depth characterization, Follett achieves what all great history teachers aspire to - teaching while also telling an entertaining story. While it has taken me a while to actually finish this lengthy novel, it has never once felt sluggish or like a burden to read. In fact, it's one of the few novels (the Harry Potter novels and Stephen King's The Stand also come to mind) where you grow so close to the characters you genuinely don't want to leave them or their world behind.

I've never read anything else by Ken Follett and I don't know that I ever will after this. That's not meant as an insult, but rather as a testament to the entertaining power of this one, singular novel. Yes, there is a sequel, of sorts, titled World Without End, but don't be put off by that. If you're afraid that this is another series, or, god forbid, a trilogy, put your mind at ease. The Pillars of the Earth is self-contained. Follett himself has explained that World Without End takes place at Kingsbridge, but over 200 years later.

However you manage to find it, whether through Oprah, a boardgame, or even this meager review, I highly recommend you do make the effort to read The Pillars of the Earth. There's more to the novel than I could ever explain in a brief review, and even if I could I wouldn't. This is a world designed for exploration, and the less you know going in, the more you'll relish the experience.

Oh, and by the way, if you like similarly-themed boardgames, but a bit more abstract, I highly recommend the oldie-but-goodie Cathedral. Even if you don't care for the game, you'll still love its design aesthetic.

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