World Without End transports the reader into another time and place, 14th Century England. The book contains a broad and intertwined plot that starts in 1327 with four children sharing a fateful encounter in the forest. The tension of maintaining a secret related to this encounter ties the book's beginning and ending together. The historic events that become incorporated into this fictional story include the Hundred Years War and the Black Death Plague.
The story contained in this book occurs approximately 200 years after the story told in the prequel, Pillars Of The Earth. Many of the characters in World Without End are descendants of the characters in the earlier book. And just as architecture and construction were part of the earlier story, it is also found in this book. Again there are structures falling down with disastrous and life changing results. This time we learn that deteriorating foundation conditions below ground are the source of the structural problems. This is in many ways symbolic of the deterioration of the leaderships and economy of the region over the preceding 200 years. In the time of Pillars, the monastery had been a pious institution that encouraged learning and innovation; in the 14th century the monks have become conservative and discourage any modernization.
Modern day architects, engineers, doctors, nurses and even economists should enjoy reading about the struggles of working in a culture that honors revealed wisdom from past masters above that of current day innovators. It's also interesting to follow the politics and intrigue of life within a monastic priory where life is suppose to be focused on prayer. There are several examples in the story of smart women giving good advice to clueless men, so female readers should get a kick out of that.
The incidents in this book fit within the broad outline of 14th Century history. It paints a vivid picture of England's economy and class structure as well as the changes that resulted from the Black Death Plague. However, professional historians of the 14th Century will find plenty to quibble about. Some of the characters in the book are probably too skeptical of 14th Century thinking to be realistic. As a matter of fact, the two main characters, Merthin and Caris, have world views that are surprisingly compatible with those of typical 21st Century readers. Caris even has a rough concept of scientific medicine and Keynesian economics.
Since the commonly accepted theory regarding the primary transmission of the plague is that it was carried by fleas from rats, I was expecting the author to make some mention of the presence of rats. But no such reference is made. I know that the people at the time had no idea about that, but I thought some mention would be made of rats and fleas being present since the modern reader would be expecting it. There is reference in the story to a cat living in the priory, so perhaps it contributed to a reduced death rate by catching rats. But there is no observation made in the story that the cat was good at catching rats.
This book is popular literature, not great literature, aimed at entertaining today's reader. The author does a good job of doing just that by telling an interesting and entertaining story. As can be expected in popular literature, sexual thoughts and activity are fully explored in this book. The descriptions of sexual activity are not overly explicit, but are persistent enough to embarrass a prudish person like myself. If Canterbury Tales is any indication, the 14th Century was not an overly prudish time with regard to sex, so the book may be on target in this regard.
I think the book falls short in its description of the interrelationship between language and class in 14th Century England. Follett makes no attempt to make the dialogue reflect the dialect of the time. It is my understanding that, at the beginning of the 14th Century, the prevailing language of the educated upper class in England was French, while at the same time the peasant lower class spoke middle English (a la Chaucer). This changed by the end of the 14th Century with English being spoken by both upper and lower classes. (Parliament was opened in the English language for the first time in 1362.) There is a theory supported by some historians that this change was brought about by The Black Plague because so many school teachers died. The story as told in World Without End indicates several times that the educated English were able to speak Norman French. However, the narrative makes no mention of barriers in communication within English society caused by different languages spoken by upper and lower classes. I think the author missed an important issue of 14th Century English life by not emphasizing these language issues.
Another complaint, the book is too long. I wish authors who wanted to write stories this long would have arranged to be born in the 19th Century where they belong. People had more time to read then. In this era of so many books and so little time, books of this size really slow down progress on making it through the back-log of books to read. ;-)
Even though I can find things about the book to criticize, I nevertheless enjoyed it's lengthy and intertwined story. If I gave it fewer than five stars I would be guilty of being a hypocrite; pretending to be unimpressed with popular literature while secretly enjoying it. So I'll be honest and give it five stars based on the pure enjoyment of being immersed within a distant time in history.
If you're interested in a non-fiction account of this same time period from the French point of view, I recommend A Distant Mirror by Barbara Tuchman.