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Book Review: The Pillars of the Earth

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The Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett

I have finally gotten around to read the first of two books in the Kingsbridge series by Ken Follet; they were super popular and got great reviews at one stage. The two books themselves are quite extensive and from first glance they look like they have the potential for that “epic story” that many fantasy writers seem to manage. I’m still reading the second book, but they both focus on a town called Kingsbridge, in England, the site of a cathedral of some repute and revolving around the people who live there – from monks to merchants and from gentry to peasantry. Since I’m still busy reading the second book, this review only concerns the first book The Pillars of the Earth.

The story-line follows the building of the Kingsbridge cathedral, but first the book starts out in a very intriguing way – the hanging of a foreigner, the curse of a wronged woman and three powerful men fearful of what they had done. The significance of this opening impacts the story both on a superficial level (in that the woman becomes an important character) and on a layered level (in that secrets related to these events are revealed later on). However, the bulk of the story is a bit more down-to-earth: young romance, cruel nobility and sly clergy. In fact, the plot relied so heavily on these pop-culture tropes that I felt like I could guess at most new characters’ personalities even before they were introduced, just by their class description – the rich girl with curly brown hair is, of course, the sweetheart; the tall, handsome landowner is, wait for it, cruel and chauvinistic; and the poor, shy boy with red hair is, yep, an unappreciated genius. What’s more, the characters never changed, there was no development – they were born into the book a certain way and stayed that way for decades of plot. Nobody can boast that they are the same person, believe the same things or even talk the same all through their lives… but okay, maybe that’s difficult to write into a book without seeming too inconsistent… the characters just felt flat and unimaginative.

Honestly the story-line itself had the same feeling. Sure, all characters, good and bad, got a good dose of fortune and misfortune throughout, but the way it was administered was extremely predictable. Halfway into the book the recipe is terribly, consistently clear – the “good guys” win something, then lose something, the “bad guys” lose, then gain. It was like a rhyme you could recite “one for me, one for you, one for me…” and on and on, really, all the way to the end. Well, I finished the book not quite satisfied, but that’s life.

Then why am I reading the second book (World Without End), you may ask? The blurb promised more outside influence – plague, famine, war, prosperity. I’m almost halfway and there seems to be much more of a variety of characters, motivations and journeys. I’m hopeful. 🙂 Luckily you don’t need to read the first book in order to “get” the second. It plays out in the same town, around the same cathedral, but enough years have passed that the initial characters have very little influence on the plot and the context is completely new. Well, I wouldn’t say the first book was necessarily bad, but it was painfully average. Let’s see how the second one turns out 😉

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Book review: The Windup Girl

by Paolo Bacigalupi

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The Windup Girl Image by Moshe Reuveni licensed under Creative Commons

This was a book that came highly recommended by a trusted source and no wonder! It feels like top-of-the-shelf steampunk and reads like some of the best fantasy fiction I know. The characters all have strong individual voices, and in the book’s 350-odd pages, a couple of characters go through intense internal conflict or develop and change subtly.

At first the title made me think of gears and clockwork and even the girl’s described movements seem almost steam-powered, but about a third way in I realized she’s simply a genetically engineered organism. Well, “simply” doesn’t really do it justice, because it is implied that her human genes were spliced with a number of other animal genes. One character jokes that she must have some Labrador in her to be so automatically and helplessly obedient. Through the course of the book you realize how far-reaching the bio-engineering was – in many ways (some of them quite dangerous) she is the “improved human organism”, though she is not aware of this and her manufacturer certainly tries to train and punish out even the inkling of such a thought from all young windups. In fact, to further create a gap between windups and regular people, they are made more identifiable (and therefore isolated and excluded from “normal society”) by their so-called heechy-keechy movements: a stutter-stop motion.  Continue reading

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