Ken Follett, who set his three previous bestsellers during World War II, sets The Pillars of the Earth in medieval England.
The novel opens with the hanging of an innocent man. Watching in horror, a pregnant 15-year-old girl curses the monk, the priest, and the knights who hanged him.
Before Follett reveals the significance of that event, he spins a fascinating tale about centered around two men and two women. One is master builder and an artist in stone; both want to build beautiful cathedrals. One of the two women is a beautiful noblewoman, the other an outcast living in the forest.
Twelfth century England was not a pleasant place in which to live. For a half century, the country suffered as competitors vied for the throne.
Towns were burned, crops destroyed, women raped, people slaughtered, survivors forced into penury and starvation.
The clergy sought to protect their rights regardless of who won the throne, sometimes resorting to less than charitable means of promoting their claims.
The story is intricately plotted, fast-paced, and absolutely riveting.
Follet’s story ends with a king settled on the throne and the martyrdom of Thomas á Becket ensuring the church will remain a force in English politics for years to come.
Truxton King is the third of George Barr McCutcheon’s novels about Graustark, a tiny East European monarchy.
Graustark’s fairy-tale existence is threatened by forces making their presence felt worldwide at the dawn of the 20th century.
Truxton King by George Barr McCutcheon
Harrison Fisher, illus. Dodd, Mead 1909. 1909 bestseller #3. Project Gutenberg EBook #14284. My grade: B-.
Graustark’s titular head is 7-year-old orphan Prince Robin. Three regents rule for the Prince.
The task of raising Robin belongs to his father’s American friend John Tullis.
Truxton King stops in Graustark hoping to find romance so he won’t have to settle down to “domestic obsolescence” when he gets back to New York.
King finds romance.
He also uncovers a double conspiracy: One is by malcontents intent on killing the Prince and establishing a socialist state. The other is by exiled “Iron Count” Marlanx to use the Reds’ assassination of the Prince to make himself king of Graustark.
McCutcheon develops his characters only to a level of realism suitable to fairy-tales. He covers that shortcoming by a story replete with secret passages, spies, double crosses, and dark-of-night adventures by the intrepid hero and the less intrepid, but well-informed, travel agent who aids in his escapades.
The novel’s strength is its weakness: Abhorrent topics are treated with a light touch so they don’t seem abhorrent at all.
The period of the English Restoration, when England rejected the Puritan Oliver Cromwell Puritanism in favor of the profligate Charles II, is the setting for Kathleen Winsor’s Forever Amber.
Amber St. Clair is the orphaned love child of a couple whose families were on opposite sides during the English Civil War. When the Cavaliers come through town, Amber is seduced at 16 by Bruce, Lord Carlton, who tells her he won’t marry her and proves it by going off privateering.
Left to her own resources, Amber marries for money a man who marries her for her money.
Both are disillusioned.
Amber winds up in debtor’s prison. She escapes through her sexual prowess and begins a series of alliances designed to raise her social status and income.
“The brilliant, lavish, exciting life of an exclusive harlot seemed to her a most pleasant one,” Windsor says.
From then on, Amber’s life is a series of sexual alliances that ultimately take her to the bedchamber of the king himself.
When Amber’s enemies finally figure how to get rid of her, it is 450 pages too late to do readers any good.
Forever Amber is simply an interminable bore.
By Kathleen Winsor
Bestseller #4 for 1944
Bestseller #1 for 1945
My grade: D+
George Barr McCutcheon’s Graustark begins as a mystery, but quickly turns into a romance before accelerating into a thriller climaxed by a story-book ending.
On an east-bound train from Denver, Grenfall Lorry meets the lovely Miss Guggenslocker heading back to the Graustark capital, Edelweiss, accompanied by her aunt and uncle.
With help from the Paris postal service, Lorry and his Harvard pal Harry Anguish set out to find Lorry’s dream girl. When they find her, she turns out to be the princess of Graustark, and Graustark is in the throes of a financial crisis.
Lorry and Anguish overhear a plot to kidnap the princess. In true American hero fashion, they rush in to save the day, thereby creating a real muddle. Every time Lorry opens his mouth, the muddles gets messier.
Graustark is the literary equivalent of a Strauss waltz, full of sound and movement, engrossing but not distinctly memorable.
McCutcheon provides enough castle dungeons and moonless mountain chases to satisfy the most devoted fans of gothic fiction. He’s less strong when it comes to developing character.
His Princess Yetive is a heroine worthy of the terms—smart, courageous, wise beyond her years—but she has all those characteristics from the first chapter. Between them, Lorry and Anguish manage to fill the hero role. Aside from falling in love, the men are basically unchanged by their experiences.
Like the characters, readers will be wrapped up in the events of the novel, but remain unchanged by anything they read in its pages.
Graustark: The Story of a Love Behind a Throne
By George Barr McCutcheon
1901 Bestseller #8
Project Gutenberg e-book #5142
Photograph “Castle in the Night” by Adiju