Macmillan | 2017 (21 September) | 768p | Review copy | Buy the book
When Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge from the Continent in a snowstorm in 1558, it seems as if medieval feudalism is alive and well in this prosperous market city. His mother Alice might be one of the more successful and influential merchants in the city but his hopes of marrying Margery Fitzgerald, the daughter of gentry, are as doomed as ever. Margery is betrothed instead to Bart, a Viscount and son of Swithin, the Earl of Shiring, a man as cruel and despotic as his forefathers. To compound matters, the Willards are Protestant while the Shiring family is Catholic and Bloody Mary sits securely on the throne, thanks to her husband, King Phillip of Spain. But, even though the Shirings have the power to destroy the Willards and persecute and even burn all challengers, using church authorities to help them, Ned knows that Kingsbridge, England, and even Europe are about to change – Elizabeth Tudor waits in the wings. Ned will serve her, becoming her most trusted spy, and the future will be theirs.
France may be securely Catholic but to some not enough. The tolerant policies of Catherine de Medici, the French royal matriarch, challenge the ambitions of the mighty family of Guise, who exist just a hair’s breadth from the French throne, exerting their influence through the marriage of one of their own, little Mary Queen of Scots, to the French heir and future King. Pierre Aumande has little, living off his wits in the gambling dens and bars of Paris’s poorest streets but he has a dream. He believes that he is the illegitimate son of a Guise and he is determined to become recognised in that family. To achieve that he is prepared to do absolutely anything they ask – anything. And if that means infiltrating and informing on Paris’s growing Protestant population, pushing them onto flaming pyres, then so be it.
These are tumultuous times, not just for England and France, but also for Scotland, Spain, the Netherlands, the rest of Europe and even further afield to the New World. Men and women travel across borders and seas, often fleeing persecution, taking new technologies with them and carrying new ideas. There will be murder, judicial or otherwise, and there will be wars. Very little will be the same as the world moves into the 17th century.
Years ago, back in 1989 when it was first published, I read and fell in love with Pillars of the Earth, the first of the Kingsbridge series and followed years later in 2007 by World Without End. Nobody writes historical sagas quite like Ken Follett. He is a master of them, as shown once again and more recently in his epic Century trilogy. How fantastic it is to return once more to Kingsbridge, a city that we have seen grow and develop, suffer and endure, through centuries of history. Prior Phillip still rests in his tomb in Kingsbridge Cathedral, a reminder of those distant days when the ancestors of those who still live within the city walked its streets and built its walls and bridges. The battle between good and bad continues but now there is more to it than divides of influence, wealth and status – religion is now involved and, more than ever, individuals can break free of their bonds and rise to dominance, whether it’s through engineering, the civil service or captaining vessels.
A Column of Fire is an extraordinary achievement. As you’d expect and hope from a Ken Follett saga, it’s a mighty tome at 751 Pages (at least according to the proof). But every single one of these pages works its magic because we are taken through a whole world of stories, moving from place to place, picking up on people’s lives, following them through a period of over forty years. The novel’s heart lies in Kingsbridge but a great deal of time is spent elsewhere, predominantly in Paris, but also in the Netherlands, southern Spain, throughout England and Scotland and across the high seas to the Caribbean. The story involves people at all levels of society and the main characters aren’t just fictional, they’re also prominent historical figures, such as Elizabeth I, Mary Queen of Scots and the Dukes of Guise. Certain characters move among them, especially Ned and Pierre, bringing us into the centre of European political affairs during the Elizabethan Age, while also highlighting the intellectual, religious and literary achievements of these glorious European courts. But the suffering that religious persecution brought is made real by showing its effect on the men, women and children of this city in England that we have grown to love – Kingsbridge.
There is nothing about A Column of Fire that isn’t a joy to read. Huge ideas and swathes of history are covered, including the Massacre of St Bartholomew’s Day, the imprisonment of Mary, Queen of Scots, the Spanish Armada, but all in the most accessible yet immersive fashion. There are many characters but they all seem individual and each has a fascinating part to play in the bigger picture. As usual with Ken Follett’s novels, plenty of the character spend what time they can obsessing about sex, which you just have to put up with in these books, but it doesn’t interfere too much and it’s good to spend time with these people in those moments when they can escape the stress and danger of history. And there are always fabulous baddies to hate. There are some corkers here and I also particularly enjoyed the portraits of the Dukes of Guise with their scarred faces and scarred souls. These people were devious! They are perfect for historical fiction.
I read A Column of Fire in just two days and what a fantastic two days those were. I did not want it to end. I savoured it. Ultimately this is a novel about love and hate and trying to find the middle ground, the path of tolerance and peace. It isn’t easy to find and the characters here often fail but following Ned and Marjory through these years is a wonderful thing to do. These Kingsbridge novels don’t come along too often and when they do they’re very special indeed. Arguably, A Column of Fire is as fine an achievement as Pillars of the Earth, I certainly loved it as much.