A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
A Column of Fire is a doorstop of a book, but completely gripping from the opening pages – so don’t be daunted by the size of this novel. It’s the third instalment in The Kingsbridge series that started with The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Starting in the year of 1558, Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge, determined to marry Margery Fitzgerald. But her family has conspired against him, and she is set to marry Bart Shiring – and that puts in chain a series of actions that result in him joining the secret service for Queen Elizabeth.
A Column of Fire has a vast array of characters – some real-life historical figures, others fictional – but Ken Follett has done a fabulous job of taking the stories of a few families that we follow throughout the book. It’s a time in history when cities are torn apart by religious hatred, and there are plots and counterplots to dispose of Queen Elizabeth and to put Mary Queen of Scots on the throne. While Elizabeth tries to ensure peace, but nonetheless there are massacres and bloodshed during her reign. Over a turbulent half-century, the love between Ned and Margery seems doomed, as do the affections of other thwarted lovers on the either side of a religious divide.
A Column of Fire is truly an epic tale that has obviously been meticulously researched, and the strength of the book is its memorable characters. Several are dastardly villains, some are heroes, but most are people trying to make their way in the world during uncertain times, when religion and true faith, politics and scandals, revenge, power and love, were all driving forces for people’s decisions, whether good or bad. This is a book that has the horror of ‘heretics’ being burnt at the stake, of dangerous sea journeys and battles, and of royal courts and intrigue. It is a book of ill-advised marriages and alliances, of people of faith risking all to spread The Word, and of Elizabeth precariously ruling from her throne with the help a small group of loyal spies. From the bad decisions of Mary Queen of Scots to massacres, to the plot to kill the King by Guy Fawkes and others, this is historical fiction that is gripping history anyway, but Ken Follett makes the book emotionally engaging with his fine characters. The first books in the series have sold 38 million copies – this book is sure to sell many millions more.