Its theme best described as ambition married to limited imagination, Follettís sequel to Pillars of the Earth is weighted with injustice as the powerless struggle endlessly against a governance that exists to perpetuate the demands of the rich and noble over those who earn their livelihood from the beneficence of their betters.
When four children enter the forbidden forest to practice shooting the arrows one of them has fashioned, none have any idea that their lives will intersect over the years, bringing them face to face again and again in conflicts that seem to be written in their genes.
Merthin, the bowmaker, has thought to become a soldier, as does his broad-backed younger brother, Ralph; Caris, daughter of a prosperous merchant, is intelligent and curious, resisting the restrictions of her gender in a world that gives short shrift to womenís ambitions; and Gwenda is the youngest and poorest, stealing her only skill, child of a thief with no prospects for a better future.
Witnessing a fight between a knight and his pursuers, three of the children flee, but Merthin remains to aid the wounded knight, in turn making a promise that he will question as the years unfold. Yet the die is cast, the children growing into adulthood, each called to their fates by an indifferent and rigid society.
While these four characters are the framework of the novel, their journeys through life are made more difficult by the nature of the city, Kingsbridge, and the Kingsbridge Cathedral, both city and church under the stewardship of the prior. By the time Godwyn becomes prior, with the aid of the sly Philomen, Merthin has left an apprenticeship before time, forced to seek his architectural dreams in another city.
The one constant in Merthinís life, Caris, has proved as unpredictable as the future, the young woman unable to commit to marriage and family because she harbors ambitions of her own. Only Gwenda has small dreams, constantly in danger from an untrustworthy father who views her as an exchange; Gwenda loves a noble peasant, Wulfric, who is in love with another. Ralph is an anomaly, a villain who escapes justice time and again, cruelly abusing those without power to advance his vengeful schemes.
Yet all of these pale before the mendacity of the prior and his band of sycophants, each effort of the town toward progress sabotaged by the petty jealousies of Prior Godwyn and his beneficiaries in the church who resist change in any instance. Godwyn continually thwarts Merthinís attempts to build lasting structures that will enrich the city, his small-minded and tight-fisted hold on decision-making fueled by jealousy and arrogance.
Using the successful format of Edward Rutherfurdís Dublin and The Rebels of Ireland, Follett has provided the sequel his fans have demanded, the tale burdened with the inevitability of failure by an intransigent prior, illuminating the petty governance and grinding bureaucracy that inevitably metes out injustice to the powerless. In the end, Death (the Black Plague) is the great leveler, striking with a deft hand and impunity.