Years ago, my sister and I read and enjoyed “Pillars of the Earth” immensely (see review dated Feb. 3, 2009), a wonderful epic by Ken Follet.

World Without End“, its much-touted sequel , was therefore a must-have for me;  so I was so happy when my sister gave me this book for my birthday.

Author :  Ken Follet

Published Date : October 7, 2008

Publisher :  NAL Trade

ISBN-10: 045122499X

ISBN-13: 978-0451224996

No.  of pages :    1, 024

The Story :

It is 200 years after the story of the Kingsbridge Cathedral in Pillars of the Earth“.   Fourteenth century England is recovering from the Great Famine, under a new king, Edward III. The Roman Catholic religion has reached its peak of power and influence in medieval life so that the priory of Kingsbridge is now a major political, commercial and social factor in the huge, bustling town. It is against this backdrop that the story begins.

Four children witness a desperate struggle and death in the forest. In their terror, all four make a pact to keep it a secret. Merthin, especially, is entrusted by the surviving knight of the whereabouts of a dangerous letter, the contents of which can mean anyone’s life if he is discovered knowledgeable of it.

These four children grow up to be a nun, a knight, a master builder, and a serf’s wife. The story chronicles the paths of these four characters and how they each figure in each other’s lives, throughout a dark century fraught with the Black Plague, the Hundred Years War, the absolute control of religion, and the strong power of social and gender hierarchy at that time.

The Review :

The Good :

The book starts out very strongly with the first few chapters in Follet’s descriptive and thrilling writing style that promises this to be another brilliant epic, in the footsteps of Pillars.

One’s interest is piqued by the the author’s indugence in his characters,  pitting them against a gamut of conflicts arising from political maneuvering, medical ignorance, religious mores, male superiority, etc. Most of the time, it was interesting to see how these characters faced the roadblocks life gave and how compromises and choices were made to make one’s way.

This obstacle-compromise technique actually drives the plot and Follet keeps the pace relentlessly,  so that one can’t help but turn page after page to find out what happens—-what will the character do?

The Bad :

Unfortunately, though, Follet overdoes this obstacle-compromise formula, and this is where the book’s downfall begins.

Three-fourths into the book (about 800 plus pages in), the pace still does not let up.  By this time, the reader’s satiety for drama and conflict has been reached.  The cup hath runneth over. Tedium starts to set in.  By now, you may be weary of the constant barrage of situations the characters have to hurdle.   You may even start to wonder whether the author is as weary as well, having to dish out drama after drama.  It begins to feel as if Follet is trying too hard now and the story starts to take on the qualities of a huge soap opera.

Moreover, you may now come to realize that none of the characters have been well developed at all. Pretty much cardboard cut-outs of bad and good figures, they remain the same all throughout. If they are bad, they are thoroughly bad; if good, they are always good. They are entirely predictable and almost devoid of dimensions. This gets pretty annoying, by the way, when you’re way into the book and the characters cease to be endearing or even interesting anymore.

The Ugly :

Finally, towards the last few pages, you may start rolling your eyes at the incredulity of more problems surfacing out of nowhere and needlessly, I may add, so that there isn’t any slack (ex.  Merthin’s daughter Lolla having a huge teen-age tantrum and running away).   You might say, “Huh?…another one? But it’s almost over!”

I’m beginning to think of the inappropriateness of the book’s title, “World Without End.” It should have been “Woes Without End”.

You may also start cringing at how the author chose to resolve some conflicts for the conclusion (ex. Gwenda and Annet – terribly corny; Lolla and Caris – equally cheesy).  Actually, Follet tied up individual story endings with neat fairy-tale bows, that you can’t help but roll your eyes again.

Another thing:  The secret that was supposed to tie the characters together (as per the blurb at the back of the book)  never adequately functions as a bonding agent and is hardly a major factor in the story.  It actually seems like an aside and so loses its impact in the end when the author pulls it out to function as one of his spectacular closures.

What happened to Follet? His endings here are so unlike him. Seems like he himself was fed up with his own great big tome and he just couldn’t care less how he ended it, as long as he ended it.

The worst part of this book is really its conclusion.

To Read or Not To Read? :

Although touted as a sequel,  this story is very independent of  Pillars and can be read on its own.

It’s quite an entertaining page-turner most of the way but it does go downhill drastically a quarter of the way toward the end, which is so frustrating after you’ve spent your time reading more than 800 pages.   However, if you like TV soap or unending drama, then you’ll love this book.  The story is in keeping with major historical facts. Follet’s vivid descriptions bring up the sights, sounds, and smells of the 14th century and in this, he does not disappoint.

However, if you abhor one-dimensional characters or as I have mentioned,  long drawn out dramas, keep away from this novel.   Your money and time will be well spent on something else.

The Bottom Line :

I believe I am in the minority here with my dismal review of this bestseller.  To me, it was a story that began and progressed very well through most of the way, then suddenly fell flat on its face and came up disappointingly mediocre on the last quarter leg toward the finish line.

The sudden downturn in quality left me with a contemptuous feeling for the book and  I walked away sorry that what could have been another great effort of  Follet had gone to waste with thoughtless and tacky plot turns and additions in the last several pages.

I’m rather ambivalent about how I should rate this book.   To have enjoyed it more than half of the way and to dislike it only near its conclusion should prompt me to give this novel a better score.  However, I think I should rate it according to the lingering feeling that it has left me with…and that is disappointment.

My Mark :  Mediocre

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Author: William Napier
Release Date: 2007
ISBN : 978-0-7528-8103-4
Pages : 306

It’s the early 5th century A.D. and the Roman Empire’s former powers are waning. Attila, reviled by the Romans and exiled by his own people for thirty years, returns to his tribe to seize the throne. His ruthless ambitions and burning vengeance has birthed an all-consuming zeal in him of conquering two vast empires, the conquests of which were promised to him in prophecy. Using his brilliant intellect and forcefully magnetic personality, he succeeds in uniting warring and disinterested factions of the Huns to move with him on two common goals : the conquest of the Roman and Chinese empires.

This is Book Two of a trilogy. Attila here is not drawn as some thoughtless homicidal bully, lording over a people by fear and cruelty alone.  He is, rather,  an enigmatic leader given the intellectual brilliance of a genius, the aural magnetism of a superstar, and the iron convictions of a zealot. Yes, he is shameless, unprincipled, and cunning; yet, he can be compassionate if perceived through a Hun’s skewed sense of justice.

My enjoyment of this book has a lot do with the author’s formal writing style. Far from being stiff and dispassionately bland, the author’s “Oxfordian English” lends to a writing that is beautifully dignified, elegant and precise, and rich with descriptive details. It is a rare talent who can think of likening a living saint’s lice to “the pearls of God” and the sizzles of spat-on fire to the fire’s cowering under the spitter’s bitterness. At rare times, though, the author tends to go a tad overboard with his descriptions; but they do bring vividness to many things.

Christopher Hart’s (William Napier is his pen name) preference of endowing his characters with some sophistry is also very much a part of his creative style.

To illustrate : Attila, true to his egotistical and megalomaniacal self, addresses his warriors :

On Morals:

“Some men worship right and wrong, or make good and evil their gods and their goals,” he said. “ I believe in life and death. The question is not “Is it right?” but “Does it make me feel more alive?” This is at the heart of everything!…Even the wheyfaced moralists in their pulpits…busy censuring every man around them, do so because it makes them feel more alive. It augments their power over others. And so the herdlike many allow them to do so and believe in them.…You are your own arbiter and none may judge your deeds but you yourself…Have you lived? That is the deathbed question. That is the only question. Had you the courage to be yourself, to fulfil your desires?”

On Vengeance:

“Vengeance is wrong ,” say the Christians…“Forgive?” he cried, his voice suddenly harsh. “ What is that to the sweet joy of vengeance? There is life! To wreak bone-crushing vengeance on one’s own ancient enemies is the sweetest, most life-giving joy. It fills you with sweet laughter, it bathes all the world in a golden light, it makes you glad to be alive. Everything we do should make us glad to be alive, make us rejoice in the life that is given us. Nor should you be anxious that your vengeance and your triumph is the ruined one’s defeat. Behold I give you a mystery. It is his triumph, too…the fulfillment of his destiny, to be crushed by a superior, god-ordained might that he could no more oppose…All men must die…He can do nothing to save himself from this punishment…so he goes to his destruction unflinching, a hero shouting defiance into the face of the storm until the end, until he is cut down like a flower by the scythe, to be sung and hymned evermore for his broken nobility. Nothing so noble as broken nobility.”

These may or may not be the author’s personal convictions but they do set a reader’s cogwheels whirring up there.

Just a teeny weeny gripe, though, with his copy editor : I swear Attila’s eyes were described as “leonine” three times – pp. 35, 38, and another page I can’t locate.

For historical readers who usually like reading books anchored in factual details, I can render no judgment on the historical merits of this novel. Being unversed in the real facts behind Attila, I can not discern where the author kept to historical truths and where he deviated to serve his fictional purposes.

On the whole, this book has been an enjoyable find. Although I made the mistake of picking this up without bothering to check if this was part of a series, it’s my good luck that this “middle child” is quite independent of its elder. Now the first and last books are a must-read for me so I can complete my reading journey in this wonderful saga.

My Mark : Outstanding

Author : Philippa Gregory

Release date : 2001

A great review for this novel could be found in Fyrefly’s Book Blog.  I felt that their review expressed exactly what I thought about this book.

My Mark : Outstanding

Author : Douglas Carlton Abrams

Release Date (Paperback) : May 1, 2007

I picked up this book with the intent to read something light, funny, and a little bit naughty. The book hasn’t failed me on these three accounts; in fact, it has delivered a lot more.

The fabled Don Juan writes of his life as a galanteador (courtier) with the natural arrogance of someone who firmly believes he is God’s gift to women. But instead of being offended, I was intrigued and amazed by his ideas and perspectives on the female gender and ultimately on lust and love.

Don Juan is not your average rake. He is a rake, but one that genuinely loves women. He loves everything about them—their scent, their curves, their intellect, their eyelashes—everything! So by virtue of women’s innate beauty, he, Don Juan, takes it as his duty and life’s purpose to give the “ultimate pleasure” which they so deserve. (I wish men would think like this scrumptious guy).

His adventures, though, force him to question what the nature of passsion is. Can it be tied to love or is it a separate drive that has nothing to do with love? Is it possible to actually love and be true to one woman forever? Don Juan’s realizations to these age-old questions are tackled with lots of wit, humor, and surprisingly intelligent philosophy.

I certainly got more than what I paid for.  I got what I wanted : levity, sex, fun…plus artful writing and a good dose of food for thought, which I never thought I’d get from what I deemed as one of those “chick-lit” books. In fact, this particular passage was a little over my head:

“The greatest misstep in the dance of courtship is to believe it is our charm or beauty that is ultimately in question in this ancient fertility rite. Seduction and passion are simply Life longing for Life. It has little to do with our fears and faults. When we discover this Divine Secret, we realise that we are far less than we ever feared and far more than we ever imagined. Life uses us for its own satisfaction, and when we surrender to its will, we become a part of every kiss, whether or not it is made with our lips, and of every caress, and whether or not it is made with our fingertips.”

I only understood half of it. (I guess in crude terms it means: Go with the flow. ?) But hey, Mr Abrams does write prettily. Don’t worry, this is the only esoteric passage to me.

My Mark : Outstanding

Kudos to the author for a wonderful first novel.