An epic sweep of a life in an epic sweep of a book. Ken Follett’s A Column of Fire is the third in the Kingsbridge series of novels which began 28 years ago with the worldwide phenomenon Pillars of the Earth. In this outing, Follett moves the reader out of Kingsbridge itself and onto a truly world stage in a Reformation saga that journeys from England and Scotland to France, Spain, the Netherlands and the Caribbean. The opening, “We hanged him in front of Kingsbridge Cathedral. It is the usual place for executions”, harks back rather neatly to the opening of Pillars of the Earth but this novel works perfectly well as a stand-alone.
It is a journey not only through place but also through a dazzling number of key historical events. Beginning in 1558 and continuing through to 1606, with a nod to 1620 in the epilogue, the novel includes the death of Mary Tudor and the accession of Elizabeth I, the Bartholomew Day massacre, Mary Queen of Scot’s execution, the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder plot as well as the personal fortunes of a huge cast of characters, both real and imagined. Follett’s research is meticulous, as his readers would expect.
There are irritations. Terms such as ‘sexy’, ‘cute’, ‘bomber’ and ‘quickie divorce’ jar in a novel set in the sixteenth century and they abound. Follett’s style also tends towards the telling, especially when it comes to emotions, and simplistic language continues to be the default. I have been a fan of his work ever since I read A Place Called Freedom more moons ago than I care to remember but I have always thought he could demand a little more from his readers. Irritations but not, in this relationship, a deal-breaker: Follett can tell a story and that’s what keeps the 750 pages turning.
The key theme, alongside ambition and the dual nature of attaining it, focuses on the struggles between the embedded Catholic and emerging Protestant doctrines and the policies of tolerance and tyranny each side espouses to varying degrees. These themes come to life primarily in the fortunes of the fictional characters of Ned Willard and Margery FitzGerald, a rather nicely slowed-down Romeo and Juliet, whose lives (especially Ned’s) intersect with many of the key players of the period. The cast of fictional and non-fictional characters runs to over 5 pages and it is to Follett’s credit that he gives them all such clear voices I never felt the need to check who was who. Lots of arcs to follow but all keep moving in a plausible way and his villains, notably the deeply repulsive Pierre Aumande, are particularly well-drawn. Follett is a seasoned writer so we get a rounded end but the epilogue, with its mention the Mayflower, hints at another episode to come and the possibility that earth and fire may be joined by water and an even wider world for Kingsbridge’s descendants.
A Column of Fire is a cold winter’s night, big pot of tea and bar of chocolate comfort book and there’s plenty of space in the world for that. Just one health warning: don’t try and read it when you’re sleepy. With the paperback review copy weighing in at over a kilo (I couldn’t resist), this is not a novel for dropping on your nose.
A Column of Fire by Ken Follett is out now in the US and on 21st September in the UK.
Catherine Hokin‘s debut novel, Blood and Roses, brings a new perspective to the story of Margaret of Anjou and her pivotal role in the Wars of the Roses. Catherine also writes short stories – she was a finalist in the Scottish Arts Club 2015 Short Story Competition and has been published by iScot magazine – and blogs monthly for The History Girls.