Mini-reviews of two historical novels

Here’s a quick look at two historical novels I’ve read recently.

The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett: It took me approximately forever to read this very long novel about the building of a cathedral in 12th century England. It has two well-motivated central characters: Philip, a humble prior who struggles against all obstacles to build the cathedral, and an evil earl’s son, William Hamleigh, who goes to great lengths to try to thwart Philip’s plans.

The historical setting in this book is well-drawn, especially the important role played by religion in the lives of most of the characters. Philip is devout, as you might expect, but the villainous William Hamleigh also shares the religious beliefs of the time, and his fear of priests and eternal damnation helps to drive the plot.

Ken Follett is famous for his suspense novels. Maybe that’s why I enjoyed the battle scenes in this book even though military details usually bore me. Overall, Pillars of the Earth is an entertaining historical novel, and I intend to read the sequel, World Without End.

Here’s Ken Follett’s official website.

Shogun by James Clavell: If you’re old enough, you might remember the 1980 TV mini-series based on this book, starring Richard Chamberlain. The story takes place in the 1600s, when an English ship’s pilot, Blackthorne, is shipwrecked in Japan and is forced to quickly adapt to a culture very different from his own. Meanwhile, he becomes a pawn in a political game played by Japanese feudal leaders on the brink of civil war.

The story held my interest. The historical details were interesting, and so was the cultural clash between the English and Japanese characters — and later, between Blackthorne and his own shipmates, who start to seem barbaric to Blackthorne as he becomes assimilated into Japanese ways.

Late in the book, the writer stops focusing on Blackthorne and switches his attention to the powerful and wily lord Toranaga, whose apparent goal (although he denies it) is to become ruler of Japan.

However, the story ends before Toranaga’s military campaign starts. The fate of many of the characters, including Toranaga, is left open. I found this disappointing, and in particular I would have preferred a better resolution to Blackthorne’s storyline.

Still, it’s a good book and I recommend it to patient readers. (I say “patient” because the book is more than one thousand pages long.) James Clavell died in 1994, so he doesn’t have an official website as far as I know, but here’s his Wikipedia entry.

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