To say that I found Ken Follet's World Without End rather disappointing would be an understatement. As someone who was really hooked on his Pillars of the Earth, chronicling the lives and the legacy of medieval lovers Jack and Aliena, I was really looking forward to reading World Without End because it was about their descendants and set in a similar tone, a familiar world.
Too similar and too familiar, I soon found out.
World starts as four young children witness a knight with a secret kill the men who are running after him. The children are from different worlds, unaware how the events of that day would have far-reaching effects that would shape who they would become. On paper, it sounds different from Pillars but somehow, this still echoes the previous work in characterization and plot so much that it feels like a mere rehash, and even then, falls short of its predecessor.
The characters seemed shopworn to me. They have no moral ambiguity that would have helped create tension or generate more sympathy: good characters are 'good,' bad characters are inexplicable driven by narrow-minded malice and evil. Merthin is the talented descendant of Jack Builder, so anything he touches turns to gold. He even survives the Black Plague in Italy, where he has established his fortune after years of struggling as an unrecognized builder in Kingsbridge. Stepping into Aliena's shoes is Caris, the intelligent daughter of a wealthy merchant and the love of Merthin's life. Like Merthin, Caris is written as if she has a halo around her head. Of course you know she is going to triumph against all adversity. There is no thrill here that suggests otherwise. Against these two would parade all sorts of envious, greedy characters, all cut from the same cloth, none coming remotely close to any sense or reason.
The only characters whom I thought might still surprise me were Gwenda, a thief's daughter and Caris' friend, and Thomas, the mysterious knight, but instead they are given such paper-thin existences. Gwenda, shrewd and capable but still of largely uninformed peasant stock, does an inexplicable job of sounding like a lawyer in one of the confrontations in this book. Sir Thomas is all but forgotten towards the end. There were so many times that I wanted to put this book down but I felt the need to finish it because I felt as if I owed it to the Mr Follet who wrote Pillars of the Earth.
I could go on and on about the things that I did not appreciate in this voluminous story (I haven't even started on the logical lapses in the plot) but I know I have to stop at some point. I still think Mr Follet is talented enough in bringing out the rich, even minute, details of medieval life and anyone interested in that might be persuaded to give this a try. I urge you to check out reviews from other readers, because I think this averages four stars on Amazon and GoodReads. But in the end, World Without End is not for everyone, and it was certainly not for me.