Combining historical fiction and a tale of adventure and intrigue, this novel is centered around a cathedral whose design and construction in the 12th and 13th centuries unites a vast array of characters whose fortunes are inseparable from the shifting political factions and economic interests vying for supremacy.
A fat 600 pages, set across forty years of the thirteenth century, Cathedral brings together religion, politics, trade and family in a noisy chronicle of territorial battles, domestic squabbles, and the strains and rivalries of work ... Ben Hopkins has written a good old-fashioned historical novel, alive with dramatic detail rather than encrusted with period research. It is light on its feet, too. The sentences are short, as are the chapters, the language is simple yet sharp, and the reader races happily over the terrain ... Each voice and viewpoint is nicely distinct – there is no single lens – and the narrative often jumps in time when it changes between characters, leaving the reader the enjoyable task of putting together the full story ... That said, there is no conventional narrative arc either. Excitingly, things just keep happening. Friendships are made and broken, factions unite and fracture, fortunes rise and fall and rise again. Events that might be meaningful turning points, or significant resolutions, simply generate further action ... All this activity may seem shockingly futile, unless survival – in and of itself – can be called a purpose ... And the cathedral? In a novel shaped and dominated by life’s rough-edged realities, it stands as a perfect symbol.
The riveting story of the lives and motivations of cathedral builders: of humble serfs turned quarry workers; of visionary artists; of those who collected the harsh taxes and arranged the bequests that funded cathedral-building efforts; and of kings, emperors, and popes, each with their own motivations and purposes for building, which often had little to do with honoring the divine ... Cinematic in color and scope, the tale begins in 1229, in the Rhineland town of Hagenburg, where a young serf determines to use his carving skills, and money from Jewish lenders, to purchase his freedom ... the gripping narrative unveils a 'network of barterings, promises, investments, and gambles' that twist and shape the lives of the young carver and fifteen others.
With its intersecting plots that rest on the slow but not so steady construction of an enormous church in medieval Alsace, Ben Hopkins’s novel has the look of an old-fashioned doorstop of a saga. But when you immerse yourself in the shifting perspectives of Cathedral, what you also discover is a clever (even postmodern?) commentary on the ironies of history. As he traces the fates of a lively scrum of characters, Hopkins shows how the seemingly firm hierarchies of one era can be grounded in the social strife — and sometimes sheer luck — of those that came before. In this nimble mesh of stories, a trading empire can have its roots in something as simple as the theft of a wig ... Hopkins is a filmmaker as well as a novelist, so it’s no surprise that he should stock his pages with tension-filled scenes.