World Without End by Ken Follett
It's easy to see why Ken Follett waited 18 years to write a follow-up to his bestselling medieval epic The Pillars of the Earth. It's a tightly plotted, meticulously researched masterpiece of popular historical fiction with a rabid fan base that would likely flay Mr. Follett alive if the sequel was no good.
But World Without End isn't a sequel, strictly speaking. Like Pillars, it's set in the priory of Kingsbridge, and covers all walks of feudal life from serfdom to nobility, but the action picks up 200 years later. However, the Middle Ages weren't known for wacky things like change and progress, so much will be familiar to readers.
In fact, many characters in the book have near-identical Pillars counterparts: there's a lusty red-headed master builder in love with a strong, clever woman who refuses to bend to convention. There's a wicked nobleman who can nurse a grudge for decades. And of course, there are tons of corrupt men of the cloth.
Though the character types are familiar, they're engaging, and Follett gives them terrific storylines. And for readers who grew weary of all the architecture talk in Pillars, there's surprisingly little of that here. Instead of cathedral-building, the most important plots here center around the Black Plague, witch trials, and medieval medicine. Even more interesting is that Follett creates a cast of strong female characters who make the ones in Pillars look like shrinking violets.
Follett has a remarkable talent for knowing exactly how far he can push the tension, and how many terrible things he can pile on his characters without frustrating the reader. World Without End may be 1000 pages long, but there's not a bit of fat.
This makes it incredibly difficult to put down. I cannot recommend starting World Without End when you have a lot going on, because you will be powerless to resist churning through the book to get to those incredibly satisfying last 100 pages where everybody gets exactly what he or she deserves.
So fear not, Pillars fans. You'll love it.