(I purchased Pillars of Light by Jane Johnson)
I desperately wanted to love this book. I had first heard about it near the end of last year, before the novel was published – and it sounded fantastic! It was, in fact, fantastic… For the first 50 or so pages. Those pages offer one of the better introductions to a story that I’ve seen in quite some time. We are told of John, an English, Catholic conman by circumstance, whose entire life has been a struggle, and of Zohra, a young Syrian Muslim woman who is betrothed to a hated cousin. We also learn, of course, about the people in their lives – John’s travelling companions and Zohra’s family and love interest (a Jewish doctor’s son).
Johnson does well in her effort to demonstrate the devastation and suffering caused by the greed and ruthlessness of the crusading kings and nobles, and the care with which she carried out her research is evident. I could easily imagine the story’s setting, and felt like a very ancient fly on the wall.
After those first 50 or so pages, however, I stopped caring. The novel’s two overarching love stories almost appear out of nowhere. This love-at-first-sight thing is just not believable. Attraction? Sure! But that deep love that can only come from truly knowing another? Nope. We can see SOME development between John and the Moor, but almost none between Zohra and Nathaniel, yet we are expected to believe that they would easily risk their life to spend some time with each other.
As characters begin to die, I find myself still not caring, and I think that’s largely because the character development is so weak. Johnson spends a great deal of time placing the reader historically – which is great, don’t get me wrong – but neglects her characters.
I finally got tired of seeing this book on my coffee table for months, so I picked it up and powered through it in two evenings. Frankly, the ending was even more disappointing than the rest. It was abrupt as though the author had given up on the work, too, and felt more like an afterthought rather than a catharsis.
This book just didn’t live up to the hype of “epic”.