Sunday, September 09, 2018

Two big summer books: The Essex Serpent and World Without End

I participated again this year in the Big Book Summer Challenge, hosted by Sue at Book by Book.

Not only did I finish three marvelous big books as part of the challenge, but I also won the prize, a gift card at Amazon! Talk about the icing on the cake--and yes, I've already spent it on two books that I plan to read this fall: The Black Arrow, by Robert Louis Stevenson, and Ghost Stories of an Antiquary, by M.R. James. Thanks, Sue!

So my three big books were Our Mutual Friend, by Charles Dickens, The Essex Serpent, by Sarah Perry, and World Without End, by Ken Follett.

The Essex Serpent almost didn't make the cut to qualify as a big book, clocking in at 418 pages, but it did so I counted it. I picked up this book a year ago in the Manchester airport, waiting for my flight home after walking the Hadrian's Wall Path. I had heard about it and loved the cover and felt the premise had promise, and had a few extra pounds I needed to spend. So glad I picked it up as I really enjoyed it.

Here's part of the Amazon blurb:

When Cora Seaborne’s brilliant, domineering husband dies, she steps into her new life as a widow with as much relief as sadness: her marriage was not a happy one. Wed at nineteen, this woman of exceptional intelligence and curiosity was ill-suited for the role of society wife. Seeking refuge in fresh air and open space in the wake of the funeral, Cora leaves London for a visit to coastal Essex, accompanied by her inquisitive and obsessive eleven-year old son, Francis, and the boy’s nanny, Martha, her fiercely protective friend.
 While admiring the sites, Cora learns of an intriguing rumor that has arisen further up the estuary, of a fearsome creature said to roam the marshes claiming human lives. After nearly 300 years, the mythical Essex Serpent is said to have returned, taking the life of a young man on New Year’s Eve. A keen amateur naturalist with no patience for religion or superstition, Cora is immediately enthralled, and certain that what the local people think is a magical sea beast may be a previously undiscovered species. Eager to investigate, she is introduced to local vicar William Ransome. Will, too, is suspicious of the rumors. But unlike Cora, this man of faith is convinced the rumors are caused by moral panic, a flight from true belief.
 These seeming opposites who agree on nothing soon find themselves inexorably drawn together and torn apart—an intense relationship that will change both of their lives in ways entirely unexpected.
I loved so much about this novel--the weaving of science and folklore, the psychology of fear (not unlike the hysteria of Salem), and the interesting mix of characters. I particularly liked Stella Ransome, the wife of vicar William Ransome, and her yearning for blue things as she copes with the disease that is consuming her vitality. Once again, this book left me wanting to read about Charles Darwin--maybe next year!

World Without End by Ken Follett is the second in his Kingsbridge trilogy. I loved Pillars of the Earth, and World Without End picks up the story of Kingsbridge and its inhabitants 200 years later in the early 14th century, during the time of Edward III.

Whereas Pillars of the Earth focuses almost exclusively on the building of the cathedral, with some tangents into areas such as town building and the wool trade, World Without End has a variety of topics that are interrelated but fascinating in their own right. To name a few: the plague or Black Death, how the clergy and townspeople and villagers survived, and how it affected them (namely, more opportunities for people to rise socially, rid themselves of the yoke of serfdom, earn more and become more mobile); the interconnections of  European economy (i.e., the wool trade in England versus Florence); the beginning of the 100 Years War between France and England and how the tactics of the French were slow to adapt to developing warfare technology; and the always fascinating role of women and use of accusation of witchcraft as means of keeping smart women home and quiet.

All of that, plus a wonderful cast of characters and a tightly constructed plot that had political intrigue and that connected the main characters to each other throughout the long novel made for a wonderfully enjoyable historical romp in fictional Kingsbridge.

I will definitely finish the trilogy next year with Column of Fire, which takes place during Tudor times.

I've always really enjoyed Edward Rutherford's historical novels that track a few families in a specific location over the centuries. The criticism I and others have about these novels is that the stories of the individuals are really just short stories--you don't have time to really get to know and love them. Not so with this trilogy--you still get the family stories that span generations over the centuries, but at ~1000 pages each, you have ample time to get to know and love or loathe the characters.

Final note about World Without End--at times I did feel like Follett was recycling parts of Pillars of the Earth. For example, the main characters line up pretty well:
Pillars of Earth     World Without End     Trait
Lady Eliana           Caris Wooler               Strong, smart female with an incredible business saavy
Jack Builder          Merthin Fitzgerald      Wiry, smart male with an intuitive engineering sense
William Hamley    Ralph Fitzgerald         Thug of Shiring--given to rape, murder, vengeance, pride
Waleran Bigod      Godwyn/Philemon       Corrupted priest/prior/bishop - unscrupulous, thief

All that said, the story of Gwenda, Wilfric, and Annett was fresh and I was honestly and refreshingly surprised by how their story worked out at the end. Gwenda really was a great character and one of my favorites.

I'm not sure if I will watch the mini-series or not--I like faithful adaptations of books, and I've heard this one is not faithful. For one thing, it looks like they completely eliminated Philemon as a character.


  1. Lately it seems that all I have been doing is reading long books. I have to consciously read some shorter ones :)

    I have been meaning to read Ken Follett for a while. I probably will start with Pillars of the Earth.

  2. It seems like I've been reading a lot of long books lately, too. Never considered The Essex Serpent until reading your review... it sounds more interesting than I initially thought. The only Ken Follett I've read is Fall of Giants (Century Trilogy #1) and I'd like to read Winter of the World, but the books are just SO long!!

  3. Congratulations on both completing the challenge and winning the prize!

    I generally like big books if they justify their length. As a reader I enjoy the depth and detail longer works can provide.

  4. Congratulations on completing the Big Book Challenge. I did read and liked Pillars of the Earth by Ken Follett. My favorite character in that book was Prior Philip. World without End sounds interesting particularly since as you say it deals with a number of themes, not just the building of the Cathedral. Eager to read Column of Fire as well. Big historical novels can be so much fun provided the author can write and Ken Follett, James Michner and Edward Rutherford really know what their doing.

  5. Wow you did a lot of reading this summer. Those are big books! Both sound excellent. I'm a bit interested to read Follett's Century Trilogy ... that starts with Fall of Giants. Have you read those?

  6. Congratulations on two more Big Books, Jane! These both sound great. I've heard good things about The Essex Serpent. And Pillars of the Earth was my very first Big Book Summer book that gave me the idea for the challenge :) I loved it and also watched the mini-series, so i should really add World Without End to my TBR and continue the trilogy!

    The two new books you chose with your gift card sound perfect for the season - enjoy!


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