The story spans 51 years in 12th-century England and provides plenty of good guys and bad guys, and, boy, are some of the bad guys bad. There's the aptly-named Bishop Waleran Bigod who is not so much actively evil as he is greedy and power-hungry and willing to wield his power as a man of God to his advantage above all else. William Hamleigh, on the other hand, is truly a horrific character. William, who likes to play games of "stone the cat," William who can't get it up unless he can see fear and pain in the eyes of the woman before him, William who uses murder and rape to keep his starving tenants in line, William who, well, you get the picture.
Working on the side of good is Philip, a pious monk who genuinely believes in doing God's work by helping God's people, not by acquiring power and wealth like some people we could mention (I'm lookin' at you, Bishop Waleran). Philip is smart, kind, and resourceful, and he finds himself in charge of a priory whose church has just burned down. Luckily, Tom Builder, who has been roaming the country-side looking for work, preferably as master builder on a cathedral, has just arrived on scene. As Philip considers the possibility of erecting a stone cathedral to the glory of God, he presses Tom about why it is so important to him to be appointed master builder on a project such as this:
Tom had not expected that question. There were so many reasons. Because I've seen it done badly, and I know I could do it well, he thought. Because there is nothing more satisfying, to a master craftsman, than to exercise his skill, except perhaps to make love to a beautiful woman. Because something like this gives meaning to a man's life. Which answer did Philip want? The prior would probably like him to say something pious. Recklessly, he decided to tell the real truth. "Because it will be beautiful," he said.
I think anyone who is passionate about what they do or who wants to be passionate about what they do can get behind that sentiment. You go, Tom! I want you to build your cathedral too! Unfortunately, Philip's conviction is not all that is needed to build a cathedral, and so begins about 38 years of drama.
Being that this is a story of church and wars and building in 12th-century England, the majority of the characters are male, but there are two main female characters who are both strong, intelligent, independent women and are very much heroines of this story in their own rights.
I enjoyed this book far more than I thought I would, and I would encourage anyone who is intimidated by its 973 pages to give it a shot. I think you'll be able to tell within the first couple of chapters whether it's something you'll like or not.
Oops! I got carried away and published before I put in my usual call for others' reviews. I didn't run across any reviews in my blog roll, but maybe I missed yours. If you've reviewed this, let me know, and I'll include a link to your review. If you've read it but not reviewed it, I'd love to hear what you thought about it, so leave me a comment and let me know!