It’s easy to get sucked into books like The Pillars of the Earth and begin to believe the alternate narratives they weave about well-known historical events and the stories we thought we were so familiar with. Throughout Ken Follett’s critically acclaimed novel, we’re transported back to Medieval Britain, somewhere between the White Ship’s sinking and the assassination of Thomas Beckett.
The country is on the verge of civil war, but a magnificent cathedral is being built in Kingsbridge, a fictional town. There is an epic story of struggle, love, deceit and vengeance woven throughout the lives of many characters who were involved in its creation over the intervening years.
Follett’s Kingsbridge series begins with The Pillars of the Earth, but the subsequent books, set during other historical moments and featuring descendants of characters from Pillars, are just as captivating. Follett’s next Kingsbridge novel isn’t due out until later this year, but the books on this list will keep you entertained while you wait.
Books like The Pillars of the Earth
Agincourt, by Bernard Cornwell
As in all books like The Pillars of the Earth, the famous battle of Agincourt is the inspiration for Bernard Cornwell’s exceptional novel of the same name.
A talented English archer, Nicholas Hook is forced to seek refuge among the English mercenaries guarding Soissons from French invasion because of his brazen attitude.
After the Siege of Soissons, he is summoned back to England and enlisted in Henry V’s army as an archer. Sickness and injury after Henry V’s humiliating defeat at Harfleur have decimated his army, but he nevertheless marches on to Agincourt, despite the fact that everyone believes he is marching to his death…
Using the alternating perspectives of French and English soldiers, Cornwell expertly dispels myths about the events and has a unique way of catapulting the reader right into the heart of the battle. This mastery of the battlefield is what elevates Agincourt to the status of a classic work of historical fiction.
The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure
As Charles Belfoure’s Paris Architect beautifully incorporates architectural knowledge, fans of The Pillars of the Earth will be delighted by the novel’s use of similar techniques.
The protagonist, Lucien Bernard, is an accomplished architect who, despite living in Nazi-occupied Paris, is blissfully unaware of the ongoing conflict between the Nazis and Jews. Lucien, on the other hand, is approached by the Nazis to design hiding places for Jews in his buildings, a decision that unintentionally sees him become a member of the Nazi resistance movement.
Col. Schlegal is the Gestapo’s depraved leader, and Lucien’s clever hiding places work well for a while, but one of them eventually fails and is discovered by him. Lucien’s design flaw has made it impossible for him to remain oblivious to the ferocity with which the Jewish people are persecuted.
With Lucien, Belfoure’s reluctant hero, and his rich prose, The Paris Architect is a remarkable book that will keep you turning the pages until the very last one.
The Alienist, by Caleb Carr
For six months after its release in 1994, The Alienist was on the New York Times bestsellers list. It has since been made into a popular Netflix series starring Dakota Fanning and Luke Evans.
There are opulent opera houses, glittering gin mills and criminals galore in New York City in 1886 as Carr takes us back to the Gilded Age of the Big Apple. After discovering the horrifically mutilated body of a young boy, Dr. Laszlo Kreizler, a psychologist (or “alienist” at the time), seeks assistance in identifying the assailant who has been preying on young boys all over the city.
John Schuyler Moore, a crime reporter and friend of his, joins him in a Holmes and Watson-style investigation to catch the killer once and for all.
The Alienist is a fast-paced novel that will captivate fans of books like The Pillars of the Earth. It is also the first in a series that will follow Dr. Laszlo and the advancements in psychology and criminology.
Cathedral of the Sea, by Ildefonso Falcones
In a similar vein to The Pillars of the Earth, which was adapted into a popular Netflix series of the same name, Cathedral of the Sea explores themes like love, war, revenge, and history as well as architecture.
We are transported to Barcelona in the 14th century by Ildefonso Falcones’ historical novel as the city struggles to celebrate the construction of the Santa Maria del Mar cathedral while also avoiding the deadly Inquisition. Arriving in Barcelona, Arnau Estanyol quickly gets involved in the construction of the city’s much-anticipated cathedral.
Eventually, Arnau finds himself in hot water with the Inquisition after falling in love with a woman he shouldn’t and trying to keep their relationship a secret. Arnau fears that he will die before he sees the cathedral he has spent his life building, as the betrayal and treachery against him are revealed.
Taking you on a perilous journey through medieval Spain, Cathedral of the Sea is an engrossing epic!
A Bridge to the Sky, by Margaret Ball
As told in A Bridge to the Sky, the story of a 13th-century architect who built his dreams from the ground up is a fascinating one.
As a result of their exile from their Dunwich home, Stephen of Dunwich and his mother Maude seek refuge with Brother Daniel among the Black Monks of Ely.
Despite Bother Daniel’s harsh methods of teaching, Stephen learns the fundamentals of architecture, building, and stonemasonry here. The convent is under siege by soldiers, but Stephen sees a way out and doesn’t waste any time.
As a builder, he is able to work for a variety of clients in a variety of countries, from Egypt and Israel to France and Hungary, building cathedrals and other prestigious structures.
A Bridge to the Sky by Margaret Ball is a masterful blend of history and drama, and it’s so richly detailed that fans of books like The Pillars of the Earth will enjoy it just as much.
Pompeii, by Robert Harris
The fate of the citizens of the doomed city of Pompeii is well-known, but in his gripping novel Pompeii, Robert Harris takes us inside the city’s walls, amid the panic and fear.
Engineer Marcus Attilius Primus is sent to Pompeii to oversee the Aqua Augusta, the city’s primary aqueduct that supplies fresh water to hundreds of thousands of residents.
The aqueduct is failing due to the drying up of springs, and Atillius must figure out how sulphur got into the water supply and why his predecessor mysteriously vanished. An investigation that will lead him to Mount Vesuvius, where he will discover the source of the problem and the threat of much more.
Those who enjoy books like The Pillars of the Earth or The Lost City of Z will enjoy getting lost in Pompeii, because Harris can match Follett’s mastery of language and historical detail.
The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova
A chilling novel like The Historian by Elizabeth Kostova, which explores the origins of the Dracula legend and how it has been reimagined in modern literature, follows The Pillars of the Earth on this list.
This book and pile of old letters, discovered by the narrator, lead her on a journey across Europe to uncover a labyrinth of intricate secrets about her family’s history, as well as that of Bram Stoker’s tyrannical villain in Dracula, Vlad the Impaler.
They reveal how historians before her (including her father) had risked everything in their quest to prove what they believed to be true: that Vlad the Impaler’s reign was far from over. ‘My dear and unfortunate successor’
Kostova’s debut novel The Historian, though not scary, does have a haunting quality to it because of the alternating timelines in which the story takes place, making it impossible not to be enthralled by it.
The Name of the Rose, by Umberto Eco
The Pillars of the Earth, by Umberto Ecco, takes us back in time to 1327 Italy for an intriguing and thought-provoking novel.
Following a Benedictine monk and his mentee, Adso of Melk, on an investigation into herety at a Benedictine Chapel, The Name of the Rose examines truth and storytelling.
Suddenly, a string of unexplained deaths begins to occur among the members of the congregation. In a last-ditch effort to figure out what’s really going on at the Abbey, Brother William turns to the writings of ancient thinkers like Aristotle and Aquinas for guidance.
Similar to Follett’s The Name of the Rose, Ecco’s The Name of the Rose also delves into medieval history, but it also has philosophical, theological, and metaphysical undertones that require the reader to decipher meanings just like Brother William did in the novel.
Even though books like The Pillars of the Earth can take a long time to get through, the vivid and intricate descriptions of the worlds and people they depict make them impossible to put down.
They demonstrate that there is always more than one story to tell and more than one way to tell it through their fiction, which is inspired by historical events.