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During mass at All Hallows, Gwenda is forced by her father to steal the money that Sir Gerald was supposed to use to pay his debts to Kingsbridge Priory. Forced to default on these debts he is disgraced, his property confiscated and he and his wife are left as pensioners to the Priory. This disgrace drives their sons Merthin and Ralph to seek to regain the family's fortune and honour, Merthin by apprenticing himself as a carpenter, and Ralph as a squire under the Earl of Shiring.

Ten years later Caris and Merthin are in love. When a section of the vault of the Kingsbridge Cathedral collapses Merthin, now an apprentice carpenter, shows his genius by developing a cheaper means of repair than his master. Ralph, now a squire to Earl Roland of Shiring, provokes a fight and has his nose broken by a handsome peasant from Gwenda's village named Wulfric, for whom Gwenda has a hopeless infatuation. Gwenda is sold for a cow by her father to be prostituted at an outlaws' camp.

Ken Follett | Bibliography | World Without End | Principal Characters

She kills one of the outlaws while he is raping her, and escapes. She is followed by her buyer, but is able to drown him when the Kingsbridge bridge collapses, a tragedy that kills many, including all of Wulfric's immediate family and Prior Anthony of Kingsbridge. In the midst of the disaster Ralph saves Earl Roland's life and is rewarded with the lordship of Gwenda's village of Wigleigh. Gwenda and Wulfric return to Wigleigh and attempt to gain Wulfric the inheritance of his father's land. The inheritance is eventually denied by Ralph because of the grudge he bears against Wulfric.

Due to his poor prospects, Wulfric's beautiful wife-to-be, Annet, leaves him allowing Gwenda to marry him instead. Gwenda then tries to win Wulfric back his lands by having sex with Ralph, but Ralph does not uphold his end of the deal. Gwenda's first son, Sam, is conceived through this liaison.

Ralph, as lord, is merciless and brutal, and he winds up raping Annet as well. Wulfric does not permit this outrage to go unpunished, and lodges a complaint against Ralph with the Earl on her behalf. Gwenda, despite her consternation at her husband's defence of his former sweetheart, helps by interceding with Lady Philippa about Ralph's case.

Thanks to her intervention, Ralph is convicted of rape and is sentenced to hang, but with the Earl Roland's connivance, he manages to escape and becomes an outlaw. After robbing and murdering many people on the road to Kingsbridge, he is eventually captured with Merthin's help, and is once again set for execution, but since the king has declared war on France, he is granted a royal pardon on condition that he fight in the war. Meanwhile, the monastery's Sacrist , Godwyn, a nephew of Prior Anthony, outwits his opponents and wins the priory election in an overwhelming victory.

The long march of history

Godwyn claims to be a reformer, but turns out to be even more conservative and quickly begins to clash with the townsmen on a number of issues, including the funding and building of a fabulous new bridge designed by Merthin and allowing the townspeople to full wool for a growing fabric industry. Caris, who becomes the de facto alderman , is a particular problem. Despite being her cousin, Godwyn charges Caris with witchcraft hoping to have her executed to get her out of the way.

To escape execution, Caris agrees to join the Kingsbridge nunnery. With his impending marriage to Caris made impossible, Merthin leaves Kingsbridge for Florence, Italy to pursue his building career. Eight years later, when Godwyn steals money from the substantially more profitable nuns, Caris travels to France to petition the bishop to redress this theft. Along the way she witnesses the ravages of the war and acts as a field nurse during the Battle of Crecy , during which Ralph, having fled charges of rape and murder in England, saves the life of the Prince of Wales and is rewarded with his lifelong dream of knighthood.

Caris's errand is fruitless, however, as the bishop of Kingsbridge as well as Earl Roland have been killed in the battle.

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In Florence, the city is ravaged by the Black Death , having arrived in Messina in After recovering from the plague, a newly widowed Merthin experiences an epiphany of his love for Caris and returns to Kingsbridge with his daughter Laura Lolla. There he finds Caris unwilling to renounce her vows and the two go through a sporadic liaison.

At the same time, Merthin re-establishes himself in the community by solving flaws left in the new bridge during its completion after his departure. Thousands of residents of Kingsbridge die in the outbreak of plague, and the city quickly descends into anarchy. Godwyn loses his nerve and flees with the monks to an isolated chapel where he and all the monks die except for Gwenda's brother Philemon, who fled, and Thomas Langley. After the prioress of the nunnery dies Caris is elected Prioress and promoted acting Prior in the absence of Godwin, and she institutes the use of masks and cleanliness which help to protect the nuns from the plague.

After William, the new Earl of Shiring, dies from the plague along with all his male heirs, Ralph sees a chance to become Earl. After murdering his young wife Matilda Tilly he arranges his marriage to William's widow Lady Phillipa, whom he has long desired, and makes himself Earl. However Philippa spurns him and leaves for the Kingsbridge nunnery, where she has a rendezvous with Merthin and conceives his child. There are two huge challenges in historical fiction, which few authors have ever satisfyingly solved and from which this book emerges only with an often tensely contested draw.

One is that, in key historical moments, we will always know more than the characters, leading to chapters in which the reader fights a pantomime impulse to yell: "They're buboes. It's the Plague!

The other constant difficulty is choosing a style of dialogue which finds the balance between anachronism and stage-archaism. Follett's choice is to voice things much as they would be said today. So, for example, the lines "I'm not the one trying to steal someone else's husband" and "Mother, you're spoiling the wedding" are spoken during a family gathering. And a woman who tells her man "I'm pregnant" receives the reassuring reply: "I don't think you should try to end the pregnancy with potions - it's too dangerous.

His linking prose, though, is generally crisply efficient, rarely jarring in an Archeresque way, and the grimness of the historical reality of this period usually holds back the sentimentality to which populist fiction is prone, except in an unfortunately saccharine attitude to animals: even the baddies seem to have a dog, horse or cat, as if - and it would be unfair to invoke New Labour again here - Follett were cannily targeting the known weaknesses of his likely reading constituency.

Preferring Follett's spy thrillers, I would never have read this genre for pleasure. But, to my surprise, I came away from the book with admiration for a work that stands as something of a triumph of industry and professionalism. Trees and readers would require considerable notice before Follett extended this sequence into a trilogy, but in a culture which is time-poor and media-rich, there is a certain comfort in the fact that a book as long and dense as this is still regarded as a populist, commercial project.

Topics Books. Fiction Ken Follett reviews.

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