The historical fiction I enjoy the most manages to take significant events from the past and show their effects on the average person. It’s all well and good to say “the peasants suffered,” but it’s much more effective to actually hear from the peasants themselves. This book manages to both give voice to the everyman while still keeping the reader in the heart of the political intrigue going on during the period. The period, in this case, is 1135-1154 CE in England; a period known as The Anarchy. King Henry I, died without a male heir resulting in a war of succession between his daughter Maud and his Nephew Stephen of Blois. The period got its name due to the lawlessness that was rampant throughout the land at the time since the nobility was too busy fighting on one side or the other of the civil war. The story centers around the building of a cathedral at Kingsbridge Monastery and is told from the perspective of multiple characters, Phillip, Prior of Kingsbridge, Tom, master builder, his step son Jack Jackson, Aliena, daughter of the former Earl of Shiring and William Hamleigh, a motherfucking asshole.
The political intrigue surrounding the building of this cathedral are what drives the story forward but the unrest in the country are what give it shape. William Hamleigh could never have gotten away with being the truly awful villain he was during peace time. The antagonist of the story use the shifting alliances and general instability of the time to try to thwart our heroes. As a result, getting the Cathedral built winds up costing much more money and many lives. The action moves quickly but never feels rushed. Toward the end of the book the format of the seemingly insurmountable obstacle overcome by an ingenious and unorthodox solution starts to feel a little rote but its an overall enjoyable read and I’ll definitely pick up the sequel, World Without End.
My biggest issue with this book is breasts, specifically Aliena’s breasts. I never actually counted the number of times they were mentioned or described throughout the course of the book, but it’s a fucking lot. It seems as though no male character can think about Aliena without at least some passing thought about those boobs. It’s not just William Hamleigh, who is driven in part by his lust/hate for her. Even poor Prior Phillip has to ruminate on them for a moment. At one point, Jack ponders the evolution of them throughout the years from the pertness in youth to their slight sagging in maturity (don’t worry, they’re still super hot!). It was…uncomfortable, especially since Aliena is a smart resourceful woman who loses everything, more than once and manages to get it back through her own tenacity and shrewdness. In the sequel, I’d like to see about 20 or so descriptions of the magnificent cock of the brilliant male main character, but I don’t expect it.