This massive tome is the third in the Pillars of the Earth series and is set several hundred years after the previous (there are small references to the previous books, but they don't need to be read to follow this story). These books are what I call "soapy historical fiction." They are epic stories that span decades and are filled with drama, conflict, and romance, as well as history. This story takes us back to the fictional town of Kingsbridge, England, as well as to France, Spain, and Belgium during the time of the Tudors and the Inquisition.
The main conflict is between Catholics and Protestants, and we see the effects of this conflict on everyone from peasants to merchants to royalty. What I love about reading this whole trilogy, spaced hundreds of years apart, is the very strange feeling that comes with realizing that the characters you knew intimately from the previous books have died. All of the events and cares that drove their lives have passed into history and are largely irrelevant to the current story, but they also reverberate through the centuries and shape the lives of future generations. Another book that does this (with a very different story, and in much fewer pages) is Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi.
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From the publisher’s description:
In 1558, the ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral look down on a city torn apart by religious conflict. As power in England shifts precariously between Catholics and Protestants, royalty and commoners clash, testing friendship, loyalty, and love.
Ned Willard wants nothing more than to marry Margery Fitzgerald. But when the lovers find themselves on opposing sides of the religious conflict dividing the country, Ned goes to work for Princess Elizabeth. When she becomes queen, all Europe turns against England. The shrewd, determined young monarch sets up the country’s first secret service to give her early warning of assassination plots, rebellions, and invasion plans. Over a turbulent half-century, the love between Ned and Margery seems doomed as extremism sparks violence from Edinburgh to Geneva. Elizabeth clings to her throne and her principles, protected by a small, dedicated group of resourceful spies and courageous secret agents.
The real enemies, then as now, are not the rival religions. The true battle pitches those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else—no matter what the cost.