With his immensely popular The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett introduced one enormous, overbearing, dangerous main character, a Gothic cathedral, the building of which consumed, in one way or another, the life of most of his 12th-century characters.
He's returned to that building, in the fictional town of Kingsbridge, for World Without End, but in the 14th century. There's much the same cast of brutal, uncouth noblemen and their much-tried ladies, set against the rising, inventive merchant class of the town, built on the wool trade, and the tough peasantry that supplies them.
It is a mammoth book, 1,111 pages in my edition, for a large historical frame – the arrival of the Black Death and the beginning of the end of the feudal system. It doesn't, however, drag — except on the wrists — for Follett brings the same skill in plot and characterisation that is to be found in his modern thrillers to this strange canvas.
He's not a great writer, or even a good one, but he's a great storyteller, and that keeps you reading, and reading and reading – this would be a perfect book for a long flight.
The research is obviously solid, but borne lightly – you'll come away knowing a lot about medieval cathedral construction and the nature of England's economy in the period without really noticing. There's much here, however, to horrify the professional historian — I really can't see a medieval nun musing on the irony of a monk's sermon — and he makes no attempt to make the dialogue true to his period.
It feels, however, as though, in the brutish uncertainties, dull ignorance and sudden changes of fate in their tales that Follett has captured some genuine truth about medieval life. And he explores, through different characters and cultures, the ways in which Europe confronted the enormous, scything shock of the Black Death.
If you've recently read The Pillars of the Earth you'll have something of a sense of deja vu – the plot differs in details but very closely matches it in shape. And if you haven't I'd recommend starting with that – you won't get lost here, but it is the better book.
In both, however, it is notable that it is particularly the women characters that Follett is strong on. He begins World Without End with the eight-year-old Gwenda, trainee thief, and her difficult, tormented, but brave life is one of the highlights. Could a medieval landless peasant really turned out as she did? Probably not, but she's worth cheering on anyway. And on an interminably long flight, she'll be a lot more interesting than the movies.