The novel begins with an awful secret. Four little children from the town of Kingsbridge (now a prosperous English market and religious center) witness a disturbing scene in the forest. The knight Thomas is nearly killed because of a terrible secret he knows and has sworn to protect. To escape his mysterious enemies, Thomas becomes a monk and joins the Kingsbridge monastery. Before that, he swears oath to Merthin, one of the children, to never reveal what he saw or that would be the end of his life. This secret (which is not revealed until the last few pages and you hardly remember that it existed) doesn’t shape the lifes of Merthin, Asia, Ralph and Gwenda as the useless description on the back says. It scarcely affects their lifes so please don’t always trust what some “clever” mind has written as a book description.
Merthin and Ralph are the two sons of the fallen nobleman Gerard, who after losing all his money is forced to live on the charity of the Kingsbridge monastery. The boys cannot be more different. Ralph is the younger one, but he is stronger and since early childhood he shows signs of violence. Merthin dreams of being a knight but his weak figure and father’s disapproval destines him to the fate of a mason. Here comes the first of oh so many similarities between The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Yes, the stories are different, but the main characters are way too the same. Caris (Aliena?) is the smart and sceptible daughter of one of the richest woolers in the town. The love-hate relationship that forms between her and Merthin will span many years and several continents (a little reminder of Aliena’s pilgrimage to find Jack). Ralph of course, turns out to be the biggest villain in the novel (William!) and by the 500 page we all hate him so much that we wonder which one was worse – William or Ralph.
Gwenda is the bit of fresh air that actually brings to the difference between the prequel and the sequel. She is a low born woman with a troublesome family. Her father, a most prominent impostor, barely manages to feed his family and from an early age forces Gwenda to steal. At one point he even sells her as a prostitute for a cow (I know, FOR A COW!). Seeing that she cannot get help from her mother or father, Gwenda becomes the most independent and admirable character in the novel. Her desperate love for Wulfric, who in turn longs for the stupid but beautiful Annette, shapes her life and gives her strength to fight both for Wulfric and herself. A clash against Ralph unfortunately marks a life of uncertainty and violence. Nevertheless, Gwenda is keen and observant and only her strength of will and sharpness of mind keep Wulfric and herself alive and fed.
What World Without End lacks is the strong figure of the prior of Kingsbridge. Instead the priory and the town are run by Prior Anthony, Caris’s ambitious but unscrupulous and shortsighted cousin. When the bridge that connects the town to the rest of the county collapses, Merthin is set on an ambitious project to build a stone bridge and correct any mistakes made by previous builders. Similarly to Tom and later Jack, Merthin is faced with backwardness, intrigues, and cruelty.
The drama of the English-French war is exacerbated by another, more evasive enemy. The plague comes to Europe, to the UK, and to Kingsbridge itself. People are starting to doubt the ultimate power of the clergy and its prayers to cure a disease that seems out of reach. Caris, now a prominent leader of the town, attempts to wipe out widespread prejudice towards medicine and to educate people on the importance of isolating the sick and preventing the further spread of the plague. Herself and Merthin appear to be the white knights of the story, fighting at any point of time corrupted clergy, violent men-at-arms, and conservative townsmen. Their love story passes through ups and downs, with Caris being sentenced to death and Merthin travelling back and forth. Again, it quite resembles Jack and Aliena’s.
Ken Follett has rich imagination and is a fascinating and engaging storyteller. He knows the human soul and he has an eye for what constitutes a good story and a good conflict. However, he is a bit too much in World Without End. The novel could have easily been 200-300 pages shorter without that altering its quality. In fact, it would have increased it significantly. In addition, the resemblance with The Pillars of the Earth is annoying at points. I guess if you don’t read them one after the other, you might not find that so disturbing, but if you do (like me), you will feel you are reading the same book over again.
I am looking forward to the second part of his 20th century trilogy, Winter of the World (first one: Fall of Giants) and I sincerely hope he doesn’t make the same mistake as with The Pillars of the Earth. However, nearly 2,500 pages with Ken Follet later, I definitely need a long break from him.