20 August 2010

Review: Cathedral of the Sea by Ildefonso Falcones

This magnificent novel has been translated from Spanish and has sold over two million copies in Europe as well as winning many prizes. Set in Barcelona in the 1300s during the construction of the spectacular gothic Santa Maria del Mar Church, there have been many comparisons to Ken Follett's earlier novel Pillars of the Earth. I might as well state at the outset that whilst both historical fiction novels are epic page-turning sagas featuring the construction of a Church/Cathedral, Pillars of the Earth is more focussed on the building of the Cathedral, whilst in the Cathedral of the Sea, the building of the Church is almost a back drop, and never really the main focus of the story.

The Cathedral of the Sea is a good solid read at over 630+ pages, and is set over a period of more than 60 years. The story begins in 1320, with the parents of the soon to be main character Arnau. His parents experience terror first hand when the local lord arrives on their wedding night to exercise the right of firma de espoli forzada, which gives the lord the right to sleep with a bride on her wedding night. Needless to say the novel is gripping from the very beginning and I was instantly hooked.

Falcones is able to convey the sights, sounds and smells of this period brilliantly and throughout all of the various classes from the very rich to the destitute and the poor. Various conflicts feature throughout the book; we learn about the relationship between the King, Barcelona and the Pope, we witness the terrible treatment of Jews and the powers of the Inquisition. This novel really has it all. The main character undergoes several twists and turns in his life, and several changes in occupations, but I won't spoil the book by mentioning any of them here.

As you would expect in such an historical epic, the plot is rich with family secrets, sex, power, riches, religion and conflict. Oh, and of course the building of the Santa Maria del Mar Church is going on in the background although the reader is able to enjoy the progress and the architectural beauty without being bogged down by pages and pages of tedious detail.

I would recommend this book to anyone who enjoyed Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth or World Without End, and of course anyone who enjoys their historical fiction rich in substance.

My rating = ****1/2

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