Best known for his tautly suspenseful espionage thrillers, Ken Follett took a radical departure far into the past with this epic story of the construction of a cathedral. While there is a mystery here, the book focuses more on the lives of the various people who created the cathedral or were touched by those who did.
I didn't know what to expect when I first opened this novel; now I believe it is far and away Follett's best work. While it does not offer the high-level of suspense he so brilliantly maintains in his thrillers, there are still moments of breathless anticipation and heart-pounding fear. The characters are, as Follett's characters usually are, sympathetic, flawed, ingenious, courageous, cowardly, poignant, and real. His depiction of medieval England is vivid; he weaves a tapestry of adventure, drama, romance and mystery so richly textured that the reader is almost unaware of the underlying themes of good and evil, spiritual trauma, human frailty, and hope.
One of the most enjoyable elements is the way Follett shares his love of cathedrals and his knowledge of how they were constructed in the Middle Ages through revealing human detail. We follow Tom as he plans out the structure, and see how it's the kind of edifice that a builder lives to create. Later, Jack yearns to carve not merely the decorative geometric shapes he has been given to work on, but natural shapes and designs, and he eventually does carve a figure that strains and grimaces as it appears to hold up part of the church. It is these details that make the cathedral more real to us, just as the people become more real to us, as well.
My hardcover copy (I re-read the paperback version to pieces) is 973 pages long, yet when I was done, I was sad that it had to end. This book is a wonderful way to absorb history and enjoy a multilayered story in the process.
In 2010 the Starz channel made Pillars of the Earth into a miniseries starring Ian McShane and Matthew Macfadyen. I haven't seen it myself, but it was fairly well-received, and it is now available on DVD.