World Without End by Ken Follett

Like its predecessor The Pillars Of The Earth, Ken Follett's World Without End is a formidably long epic that passes the 1,000-page mark. And yet, also like its predecessor, it doesn't feel like a slow read, even when you glance at your Kindle and see that you're on page 680 but somehow only about 53% done. I don't think it needs to be as long as it is, but at the time, ploughing through it isn't a chore.

The Pillars Of The Earth was set in the 1100s and centred around the town of Kingsbridge, which we can probably imagine is in present-day Wiltshire. The rambling plot focused around the building of the town's cathedral and the tensions that arise over the running of the town between the monks of Kingsbridge Priory, the local aristocracy and the merchants and craftsmen who live and work there. We also had a romance between Jack, a talented, forward-thinking architect, and Aliena, a well-to-do woman with a head for business. Meanwhile a sadistic aristocrat raped and murdered his way around the county.

World Without End is set in the same location 200 years later. And the plot ... well, the plot is, to be honest, almost identical. Once again we have an on-off love affair between a clever builder, Merthin (a descendant of Jack and Aliena) and a wool merchant, Caris, who insists on defying the societal restrictions imposed upon her as a woman. Instead of William Hamleigh, the evil earl, we have Merthin's brother Ralph Fitzgerald, a bloodthirsty soldier who rises to become ... yes, and evil earl. And, again, we follow the fortunes of the priory and its internal political machinations which regularly see it come into conflict with the town's business guilds.

We do, however, also get to know the serfs in World Without End. Gwenda, horribly mistreated by her feckless parents, is determined to win the love of Wulfric, a local farmer who wants nothing more than to have his own piece of land.

I'd have liked the plot and characters to be a little more different from The Pillars Of The Earth, but at the same time I can't argue that it's not a winning formula.

The story opens with Merthin, Ralph, Caris and Gwenda meeting as children and witnessing a fight in the forest between a knight and the Queen's guards. The knight buries an important document and swears Merthin to secrecy, before asking to be taken to Kingsbridge Priory where he seeks sanctuary from the authorities and becomes a monk. Why does the monastery agree to take him in? And does this have something to do with a gift of land from Queen Isabella herself?

What then unfolds is a highly eventful historical soap opera centred on the intertwined destinies of the four children over the following decades, and it's fair to say their lives are pretty eventful. Caris and Merthin, childhood sweethearts, might be expected to marry when Merthin is an established architect and Caris is helping to run her father's wool business, but needless to say things don't go quite so smoothly. Gwenda's solid determination to build a life with Wulfric that secures them some independence as well as prosperity is constantly thwarted in the worst of ways, and Ralph, essentially coached from an early age to be a sort of wealthy killing machine, is obsessed with restoring his family's name to glory. There are also the ups and downs of Kingsbridge Priory to contend with, with the prosperity of the townspeople and the success of Merthin and Caris's respective businesses at the mercy of the self-serving decisions of the monastery priors.

The main characters and the detail in which Ken Follett describes their world are the biggest strengths of this book, along with its rollercoaster of a plot. While the characterisation isn't what I'd call subtle - Follett isn't big on shades of grey - it's certainly vivid and it's impossible not to feel hugely invested in the lives of the people in the pages. Similarly, while some of the prose is clunky and things are often spelled out that we'd be better off imagining for ourselves, there's a pleasing immediacy of the kind that makes the reader feel as if they're right there amid the action.

There was plenty about World Without End that made me roll my eyes - there are several rape scenes which I don't think are necessary to describe, some jarring dialogue, and I think a number of the characters have modern views on certain things which they probably wouldn't have held in the 14th century. There are also times when characters react to huge, traumatic incidents with a remarkable lack of emotion - at one point, a man awakes from a fever to find that his wife has died of the plague and left his toddler without a mother, and reacts rather as if you might if you heard this news about a distant relative rather than actually experiencing it. But honestly, I found it easy to put these things aside: this is a book where you really do have just settle down and go along for the ride. I cared deeply about the characters and their fortunes, and the impact of historical events and changing times upon them and their lives is fascinating. If you're looking for a long, adventure-filled read to keep you easily immersed during your summer holiday, this would be a great choice.