A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
A Column of Fire is the third and, presumably, final book in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge saga – a trilogy that has taken us from the humble 12th century beginnings of the fictional town of Kingsbridge through to the majestic Elizabethan era.
Readers settling down, expecting the same intimacy of the first two books, should be pleasantly surprised by a much more adventurous outing, both in geographical scale and historical scope. Beginning with Queen Mary exiting the world after a bloody reign, the reliable formula core to all the books is evident with disreputable characters and ruthless ambitions driving apart the two star-crossed lovers Ned and Margery. Present too are nods and glancing links to the history established in the first two books; Kingsbridge Cathedral still stands at the heart of the town, with the faithful statue of Caris adorning its top, and Margery dons Kingsbridge ScarletTM with suspicious regularity. Ancestral links to previous well-loved characters are referenced and the ‘big-bad’ gene has been reliably passed down through the generations of Fitzgeralds. However, consistent with the greater scope, the big bad badge cannot, in my opinion, be awarded to any member of the Fitzgerald or even the Shiring family (although there are contenders). Instead it can be arguably attributed to a French upstart called Pierre Aumande who, through a potent mixture of charm, manipulation and outright deceit, deftly maneuvers himself to wield political power, reeking devastation across the Paris protestant community.
The book serves up an expansive and comprehensive insight into the bloody religious conflicts that swept across the western nations. The narrative transports us to France, caught in the midst of a vicious and bloody civil war, to the Netherlands and as far as the West Indies. As a result, it often feels that some characters, for which Follett has carefully wooed emotional investment, are left abandoned mid-story only to be re-introduced too late for any meaningful impact to resonate. This exposes the suspicion that their sole purpose is to ensure the cross-continental religious disputes are fully represented. However, a kinder interpretation would be that the unexpected twists are a reflection of lives at the mercy of a violently divisive period, a historical time that ultimately leads to scattered lives and scattered relatives that only reunite on a few notable occasions.
Within the rich tapestry of interweaving characters, key historical figures appear with exciting regularity, including Elizabeth I, Sir Francis Drake and William Cecil. Such figures are observed through Follett’s fictional characters and with the exception of Mary Queen of Scots, can sometimes feel like cameo appearances. However, it serves to thrust the reader right to the heart of historical events and political machinations in a way not felt in the previous two outings.
As the story briskly moves through countries and through time, the number of characters can often feel overwhelming and the reader may wonder why they should care about certain individuals and how they can possibly interlink in any meaningful way. But this is a necessary and temporary by-product of the ambitious nature of the story, and Follett’s craftsmanship gently pulls the respective threads into a tight weave that is both thrilling and gratifying in equal measure.
A central message that emerges is the strength and dignity of the women, both historical and fictional. Margery and Sylvie, distorted reflections across the religious divide, mirror each other in their remarkable resilience and courage if not in their religious convictions, and Follett takes great pleasure in placing Elizabeth I and Caterina de’ Medici upon high pedestals of religious tolerance.
“A Column of Fire” is a truly enjoyable story, each richly written character taking the reader by the hand and through events that are engraved in time and into the hearts of most English school children. If the reader perseveres through the more expansive sections and forgives some contrived plot twists, they will find it difficult to put this thrilling but warmly intimate book down. At the end, you will be sorry to leave behind characters you have come to count as friends and a tumultuous, historic time made touchingly real.
by Kate Vickers