There are monks, and one of the main characters is in fact a Welshman who has taken the vows of the cloth, but Brother Philip was adopted by the church after his parents were killed by English marauders. The book follows his rise from humble brother through the ranks of increasingly important monastic churches.
Running alongside that is the tale of Tom Builder, a master mason who dreams of one day building his own cathedral, rather than working on the plans of others. Tom's and Philip's ambitions coincide, and the story is based around the ways that the two men's ideas sometimes support each other and sometimes clash.
It's a long book. At just short of 900 pages it does go on a bit, passing through four generations of families in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge. Woven into the lives of all those involved is the Lady Aliena, daughter of the local earl, who falls from grace when her father is imprisoned for treason. She is raped by William, the monstrous son of the man who takes over the manor, and that's where the story really takes off, because she vows to take revenge and restore her brother to the earldom.
It's hard going. Not just for her. Sometimes the book feels as if Follett is labouring to tell the whole history of the period as well as cramming in all of the beastliness and butchery of the era. There are just a few too many hangings, and beatings, and murders, and rapes and thefts, all to show how tough times are and how awful young Lord William is, compared with the old earl. But we know he was no saint either, being one of three powers who allowed an innocent man to hang for the sake of politics.
So it is slightly surprising to discover just a few pages from the end where the whole plot has been leading. Two of the main characters are present at a key event in history (there's no evidence for this in reality - it's a plot device) and once Follett manages to wangle that, it's as if he loses heart. The last half dozen pages seem rushed after the laborious climb to reach that point. A bit like a roller coaster. Suddenly it's all over.
Now all that might sound like I didn't actually enjoy the read, but that isn't true. I did like getting to know the main characters and the three generations who came after them. And seeing how the various lives intertwined with each other. But I feel as if I was left to drop at the end, rather than having a gentle rounding-up. Yes, I know what happened to everyone, but after the long, involved descriptions of their lives that went before, I wanted more than a couple of sentences each to see them off. I was left feeling cheated, which is a shame.
The Pillars of the Earth