Europe during the 14th century was full of danger, the start of a conflict that would be known as the Hundred Years’ War, and the massively destructive illness that we know today as either “the Black Death” or “the Black Plague”. This was a time of despair, but it was also a time where we see a shift from old traditions of the church and the state. It is also two centuries after the events of Ken Follett’s massively popular book, “The Pillars of the Earth”. Follett explores how the people of Kingsbridge survived during this tumultuous time in his second book of the Kingsbridge series, “World Without End”.
Follett begins his book with his main characters as children in the church that he wrote about in the first book, Kingsbridge Cathedral. They are the descendants of the protagonists of “The Pillars of the Earth”, but they all come from different backgrounds. Their names are Merthin, Caris, Gwenda, and Ralph. These children decide one day to play in the forest near Kingsbridge, where they come across a man named Thomas and they witness a killing. They promise to keep the secret until Thomas dies, but this one act will intertwine the lives of the friends forever.
Like “The Pillars of the Earth”, “World Without End” focuses on the growth of these characters over decades and how their lives and their hard work change the town of Kingsbridge. Merthin takes on the role of the builder, just like his ancestor Jack Builder, who believes in his radical new ideas to help the town, even though his elders think his ideas are too far out there. Ralph is Merthin’s brother who strives to be the best soldier he can be in order to bring honor to himself and to impress those around him. Ralph does whatever it takes to make sure his ambitions are realized, even if it means stepping over his family and friends. Caris is an independent woman who has a love of helping others, learning how to dye and sell wool, and learning medical practices. She has a complicated relationship with the church and with Merthin. Finally, Gwenda is a woman in love with the handsome Wulfric and would do anything to make sure his dreams come true.
At the center of their world is the Kingsbridge cathedral and the struggle between the guild, the monks and the nuns. All three groups are fighting against each other for the power to control the town. It is the struggle between the monks and the nuns that adds a layer of depth to this story as we see that although both groups are focused on bringing glory to God, they have different means of achieving that goal and they often get in each other’s way. The nuns want to help heal the people of Kingsbridge, especially during the time of the plague, but the monks don’t believe the nuns know what they are doing.
To top it all off, this was the time of King Edward II’s murder, Queen Isabella, Roger Mortimer, and King Edward III. It was a complex time for English politics and to add a cherry on top, Edward III declared war on France because he believed he was the rightful King of France, thus starting the Hundred Years’ War. We see elements of the repercussions of the start of this conflict as we see some characters in France, fighting at the Battle of Crecy, which was a victory for the English. If I do have one thing to criticize about this novel, it would be that I wish Follett included more with King Edward III in the story. The actual historical figures feel sprinkled in and I wish they were more incorporated into the story.
As a whole, I found myself thoroughly engrossed in the story. Like in “The Pillars of the Earth”, there were moments in this sequel which did bother me a bit because of the graphic detail, but the actual story was very engaging. I would spend hours at a time binge reading this book. The characters and their individual stories were well written. Sequels, especially for extremely popular books, can fall flat. Not this book. It is the perfect sequel for “The Pillars of the Earth” as it continues the legacy left behind by Prior Philip and Jack Builder. If you enjoyed the first book in the Kingsbridge series, “The Pillars of the Earth”, I highly recommend you read Ken Follett’s book, “World Without End”.