Spoiler alert! This review reveals significant plot details.
Halfway through World Without End, I gave this summary: "sex and architecture in the English countryside, 1337." This is not entirely accurate; World Without End is not entirely composed of sex and architecture—just mostly.
I have plenty of complaints about this book. The characters are diverse but flat; the themes are of dubious worth; the conclusion is far from satisfying. Like I said, plenty of complaints. But let me start with something I can't fault: Ken Follett's ability to create conflict.
Conflict is the lifeblood of a story. World Without End sometimes reads like a book without end, but it's bearable, because Follett is constantly introducing new conflict. Although all of his characters can be sorted into "protagonist" versus "antagonist" camps, there is sufficient moral ambiguity that Follett can pit characters on the same side against each other.
Follett seizes upon 14th century English society as the source of much of this conflict. His obsession with architecture can be irksome, but it's also useful, for he furnishes us with rich descriptions of life in Kingsbridge and nearby villages. So much historical fiction is focused around the nobility or life at court that often peasant life gets overlooked. I also appreciate the look at strife between nobility and clergy, between clergy and city, and even among the various levels of clergy. Even without the plague, life in the 14th century was not easy. With the plague, I can see how it would become intolerable.
Wait, does this sound familiar? If so, then you've probably read The Pillars of the Earth. As many other reviewers note, World Without End is far too similar to its predecessor. And unfortunately, the differences are usually unfavourable ones. For example, this book lacks a sympathetic clergyman to compare to Prior Philip, who was such a great protagonist in The Pillars of the Earth.
In fact, Follett's portrayal of the clergy in this book is decidedly negative. There are very few, if any, truly devout clergymen. Most monks are painted as manipulative and self-serving (Godwyn, Philemon) or mindlessly obedient (the nameless monks who go along with those two). The physicians have little interest in progressive medicine. Oh, and most nuns are lesbians!
Come to think of it, that's a good summary of all the characters in World Without End (except the lesbian thing—that's only nuns). Every character is a schemer; knowledge is something to be used for leverage or plotting. When Caris observes Bishop Henri and Canon Claude engaging in some hot XXX Ho Yay, she thinks nothing more of it than, "Oh, you did look funny." There's no deeper analysis, no consideration of the moral or spiritual implications of homosexuality. It's not even important enough to merit a motif; it's window dressing.
This lack of depth is an epidemic among the characters. Most of them don't change over decades: Caris at 10 is just as manipulative as Caris at 20 or 30; Ralph holds a grudge for two decades after being punched in the nose. And don't get me started about Godwyn. It's not a question of believability or realism either; I'm sure that there are people in real life as obstinate as Godwyn or as selfish and brutish as Ralph.
Rather, these characters participate in such shallow introspection. Caris is so focused on what she wants, but she complains whenever she has it. She pushes Merthin away, even though she loves him and wants to have lots of sex with him, because she doesn't want to become a man's property. I acknowledge what Follett is trying to say here about a woman's status in 14th century English society. Nevertheless, by the third or fourth time she and Merthin broke up, I was beginning to wonder if I was reading tragic historical fiction or some form of soap opera.
Then, after declaring for the final time that they can't possibly be together, Caris and Merthin get married. Conveniently Caris manages to renounce her vows and still run a hospital; conveniently the charges of witchcraft against her never rear their ugly heads; conveniently Brother Thomas dies at the right time, and Merthin gets to use the letter Thomas left behind to blackmail the king.
After making it into such a sinister plot point, Thomas' letter was little more than something to ensure a happily-ever-after for Caris and Merthin. I have to confess I'm somewhat biased against happily-ever-afters, so maybe I'm overreacting here . . . but it doesn't feel deserved. These two characters rejected happiness over and over, and Follett still settled it upon them at the end, even as they kicked and screamed and refused the honour.
World Without End successfully invokes England's rich history, but Follett's execution is clumsy. I say this having fully enjoyed The Pillars of the Earth; its sequel, unfortunately, is very flawed. Rather than a moving return to Kingsbridge and its inhabitants, World Without End is a cautionary tale that conflict is necessary to a story, but it is far from sufficient.