Released in May of this year, Spanish author Ildefonso Falcones’ Cathedral of the Sea has been a runaway bestseller in Europe. A medieval historical fiction epic in the vein of Ken Follett’s Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, the book centers on fourteenth century Barcelona living through the war and plague and one character’s plight to have a good and happy life.
Arnau Estanyol is someone who’s never had anything handed to him on a platter, but then it is fourteenth century medieval Spain, and times are especially hard if you’re a peasant. In this feudal system, the peasants are essentially slaves to the landlord, whom they must pay in labor and crops grown. Fighting for their freedom, Arnau and his father flee to the big city of Barcelona, where if they remain uncaptured for over a year, they will gain their emancipation.
Arnau finds the great Barcelona to be a wondrous and new place and falls in love with the growing cathedral that is dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Wanting to help however he can, he forces his way in to becoming a bastaix—the workers who carry the giant boulders for the building of the great cathedral. As the youngest bastaix ever, Arnau proves he can carry the giant rocks from the quarry to the growing church.
In the city of Barcelona, Arnau finds love and much loss, feuding and vengeful families, and loving people, plague and war, as well as a respect and befriending of the Jewish people who are hated by all. When the plague hits, wiping out a considerable percentage of the population, the people blame the Jews, saying they poisoned the wells. Arnau must defend his new friends, and in this way is introduced to a new and lucrative career choice.
While at times it seems Falcones is borrowing a little too much from Follett, in making revenge and despair prevalent actions and emotions in the people of his world, the reasoning and meaning behind their intentions is unclear and at times seemingly pointless. There is a lacking in depth of character and storyline that has made Follett’s historical epics so popular. Perhaps it is in the translation, which seems to simplify the story too much, that makes the book seem a little too unrealistic. Nevertheless, Cathedral of the Sea is an interesting read in the systems of peasants and nobles in a fourteenth century city, in the different levels of society, and how different careers are performed, as well as what it means when war is declared by the king.
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Originally written on August 16th 2008 ©Alex C. Telander.