Ben Hopkins's debut novel, The Cathedral, immerses readers in the cutthroat world of 13th-century Rhineland. In the town of Hagenburg, the construction of the titular cathedral draws together residents from all walks of life. A farmer apprentices as a stonecutter to work on the cathedral. The bishop's treasurer chases the funding while wrestling with the politics of the church and the Holy Roman Empire. But this is a time of massive cultural shifts. Money is becoming more important than land as a source of power, and the church will need relationships with the people who have it, including the Jewish residents of Hagenburg. A rising class of merchants and guild members demand a voice alongside the nobility and clergy in the building of the cathedral. Women are finding this evolving world of trade allows them to accumulate power, and nonlinear chapters set in the 14th century provide glimpses of greater changes to come.
The Cathedral is an expansive fictional epic addressing themes of art, religion and power in the mode of Ken Follett or Umberto Eco. The large cast of characters can at times be challenging to track, but presents an impressive assortment of society. It also means that readers cannot assume any of the characters are safe; with so many prominent ones, there is no reason to believe that any one of them in particular will survive to the end. Hopkins's compelling and descriptive tale will leave readers eager for more. --Kristen Allen-Vogel, information services librarian at Dayton Metro Library