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Cathedral of the Sea    by Ildefonso Falcones order for
Cathedral of the Sea
by Ildefonso Falcones
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2008 (2008)
* *   Reviewed by Alex Telander

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 and its protagonist's attempt to enjoy a good and happy life, while living through war and plague.

Arnau Estanyol is someone who's never had anything handed to him on a platter, but then times are especially hard for a peasant in fourteenth century Spain. In this feudal system, peasants are essentially slaves to the landlord, whom they must pay in labor and crops. Fighting for their freedom, Arnau and his father flee to the big city of Barcelona, where - if they are not captured for over a year, they will gain their emancipation. Arnau finds the great Barcelona a wondrous 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 one of the bastaix - workers who carry the giant boulders for the building of the 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. There are feuding, vengeful families and loving people, plague and war. Arnau respects and befriends Jewish people, who are hated by all but their own. When plague hits, wiping out a considerable percentage of the population, people blame the Jews, saying they poisoned the wells. Arnau defends his new friends, and in this way is introduced to a lucrative career choice.

While at times it seems Falcones is borrowing from Follett, making revenge and despair prevalent motivators for the people of his world, his novel lacks the depth of character and storyline that have made Follett's historical epics so popular. Perhaps this is a fault in the translation, which seems to simplify the story and make it unrealistic. Nevertheless, Cathedral of the Sea is an interesting read, portraying the life of peasants and nobles in a fourteenth century city, the different levels of society, and what is involved in various careers - as well as what it means when the king declares war.

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