This book takes place in 12th century England after King James has died and his crown is seemingly up for grabs. While that is the backdrop the real story takes place at Kingsbridge, where the good Prior Philip has been appointed amidst some ugly politics. Tom Builder has is a master builder who has a family to feed, but no job. Tom ends up at Kingsbridge after losing his wife and child, but gaining a mistress and stepson. Aliena, the privileged daughter of an earl, is brutally raped after her father wastes away in prison and she must rise above her circumstances to protect herself and her brother. William is the heartless beast who becomes earl through devious plotting and help from a clever and power hungry bishop.
The quest of the story is the building of a great cathedral at Kingbridge. All of these players and a few others, Jack and Alfred, are directly involved in getting the cathedral built (or not built). The hardships and triumphs of these people pack an emotional punch. The history of the time period is spectacular and the building of the cathedral from its first stone was fascinating. There is a love story that spans most of the book, but the love for the cathedral overshadows it.
England is in a civil war, there is famine, and poilitical and religious intrigue abound. I think everyone will learn from this book in an easily accessible way. I would never pick up a book about building cathedrals or 12th century England, but this book with its many characters and stories made it interesting.
I did enjoy it, but have some reservations about recommending it. This is a book about good vs. evil, the good guys vs. the bad guys, but it is always very clear which side a character is on. A good guy may do something questionable, but it is always explained in a very sympathetic way so that the halo around them is still intact. While this always gives you someone to root for (and against) it seems too simple for such an epic novel. When something good happened, you knew it would be countered with something awful and that did become predictable. There are also some vulgar and graphic scenes that will repulse you. I can get past them, but I know some can’t.
I enjoyed this book. I know there is a sequel that takes place at Kingsbridge 200 years later, but I must admit I have no desire to read it. The good outweighed the bad, but I was more happy to be done than with the so-so ending. If you like grand sweeping epics or historically accurate fiction this is the book for you.