World Without End by Ken Follett
There is no doubt that Ken Follett knows how to write an entertaining story, and to keep it moving. He definitely knows what works for him, but that is actually to the detriment of World Without End because it is too much like what he has done before. It is not uncommon for authors to have certain stock characters that reoccur throughout their body of work. That alone wouldn't be a problem but World Without End not only reuses the same characters from its prequel but it also has similar themes and plots. Sometimes, when reading a series or a novel spanning several generations, I even enjoy when certain situations or lines of dialogues repeat themselves in the descendants of characters, since it shows how their lives parallel, and it also seems like a self-referential nod to the loyal reader. In some cases, it can get lazy, though, such as when the whole novel seems to just be a copy of its predeccessor. Basically, was the novel original? No. Would I have enjoyed it more if I had never read The Pillars of the Earth? Definitely. Follett knows how to weave an interesting tale, and even if he retreads a story he's already told, it's still an engaging book. I've read The Pillars of the Earth four times now, why not a fifth under a different name? In complete isolation from Pillars, it's a good story though not as strong.
In more specific terms, the characters for the most part were simply copies from the previous novel, so that Jack has become Merthin, Aliena Caris, and William Ralph. The heroes face the same type of amibitious, greedy and treacherous characters as obstacles. Some of the plots happen differently but are still reminiscent of the other book. For example, it is Caris, not Merthin, who has to use the church as a final refuge and recourse in a hopeless situation, thus recalling Jack. While William has a life long obsession with Aliena, Ralph focuses his attentions on Gwenda and her family. Also, in some ways, Caris has similarities with Philip since she is the most innovative church member, concerned with the welfare of the town rather than just furthering her own ambitions. She doesn't share his religious conviction or faith, though. Caris and Merthin's love story has similarities with Jack and Aliena's, especially the prolonged delay (I preferred Aliena and Jack, though), but it got a little ridiculous when there was a line of dialogue repeated almost verbatim. In response to Jack's wish to marry Aliena, she argues that she made an oath (to her father), and marriage is an oath so if she breaks one, how can he trust that she will keep the second. Caris makes the exact same point except that she replaces the word "oath" with the word "vow," referring to her vows to the nunnery. After all the other similarities, it just seemed too much Follett was recycling dialogue rather than making a reference to Jack and Aliena's situation. I admit I actually kind of liked comparing and contrasting the two novels while I was reading.
Of course, the novel was also kind of depressing to a degree (not only because Ken Follett has become lazy). One advertisement for World Without End claimed that "finally, after 18 years, the wait is over." I didn't know there was a wait. As far as I was concerned, The Pillars of the Earth completely and satisfactorily wrapped up everything, and didn't need anything else. Obviously, Follett must have felt similarly since he set World Without End two hundred years later: nothing else needed to be said about Jack, Aliena, Philip or the town of Kingsbridge. After more than fifty years of struggle, a sleepy village had transformed into a thriving town and built its cathedrale. That's why it was so depressing to come back two hundred years later and discover that all they did was for naught. Parts of Jack's cathedrale are being rebuilt, the priory is once again broke and mismanaged, and the city once again is struggling for survival. I didn't really need to know that everything the citizens of Kingsbridge had accomplished was only temporary.
As far as setting, the novel occurs in the 14th century shortly after Edward II had been deposed by his wife and her lover (for all you movie lovers, remember Braveheart? Edward II was the son of Edward Longshanks, and, rumor has it, gay; the wife in question, of course, was portrayed as sleeping with William Wallace in Mel Gibson's version of history). It then covers one of the many wars that England had with France as well as a few instances of the plague. One thing I liked about the novel was Caris, and how Follett used her to portray options that women had - she chose work over marriage, and her interest in medicine and healing went along with the plague plot. He also used this to show some of the ideas about medicine that were prevalent among people who learned from books rather than experience and demonstrated the conflict between the people with hands on learning vs. old establishment theories. Of course some of the view points and conversations seemed perhaps a little too modern and anachronistic, but I don't really have an issue with that - I don't want to read Middle English after all. Besides, I remember an article from one of my theory classes that argued that historical fiction and science fiction tend to show concerns with the present more than anything else. If this is the case, perhaps Follett is channeling a fear that conservatives are repressing innovative ideas and attacking people that want to make changes in the world by using weak arguments based in tradition rather than logic.