Book review: A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Can two star-crossed lovers survive the upheavals of Europe in the 16th century… or will their dreams be consumed by political upheaval and religious intolerance?

Welcome back to Kingsbridge, the fictional English city that captured millions of hearts and imaginations in 1989 when it took a starring role in Pillars of the Earth, the first book of a stunning series from storyteller extraordinaire Ken Follett which charted the building of a medieval cathedral.

The spellbinding tale, set against the chaos of a period of English history known as the Anarchy, was a runaway success but avid fans had to wait eighteen years for the sequel, World Without End, another brilliant blockbuster which followed the fortunes of Kingsbridge families in the 14th century.

Ten years later, Follett weighs in again with the third mighty book in his magnificent epic… and the army of Kingsbridge followers will not be disappointed as a new Tudor generation of the proud cathedral city faces a world riven by religious hatred, and a continent in flux.

It’s Christmas 1558 and young Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge after a year in Calais to find his world has changed. The devoutly Catholic Queen Mary Tudor is on the throne and the ancient stones of the cathedral look down on a city riven by religious hatred.

What hasn’t changed for Ned is his love for Margery Fitzgerald, the determined and intelligent teenage daughter of Sir Reginald Fitzgerald, a man from a Catholic family with considerable influence in Kingsbridge.

Ned is set on asking Margery to marry him but what he doesn’t yet know is that Margery’s father has plans for her to marry Viscount Bart Shiring, the slow-witted, humourless son and heir of the earl of Shiring, and certainly not Ned who hails from a Protestant family.

Meanwhile, Europe is in turmoil as high principles clash violently with friendship, loyalty and love, and Ned soon finds himself on the opposite side of the divide from Margery.

When the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor becomes queen after the death of her half-sister, all of Europe turns against England so the shrewd, determined young monarch sets up the country’s first secret service to give her early warning of assassination plots, rebellions and invasion plans.

Through family contacts with Sir William Cecil, now Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, Ned joins his ‘secret service,’ tasked with tracking down Catholic plotters, assassins and any other enemies of the state.

As extremism sparks violence from Edinburgh to Geneva, Elizabeth clings precariously to her throne and her principles. A long fight is ahead… can Ned and Margery cling on to a love that would appear to be doomed?

Follett comes out fighting in this new odyssey as he casts his net far wider than previous novels, taking aim at tyranny and religious intolerance, and propelling his readers on a journey that begins in Kingsbridge but moves far beyond Elizabethan England to the heart of Europe and beyond.

Packed into this 750-page tome are 50 years of history – the uncertainties and religious unrest of the Tudor period and the embryonic beginnings of the British secret service – but there is also humanity at its best and worst, and the gripping account of two people caught up in the maelstrom.

With a cast of dynamic characters, both real and fictional, a thrilling replay of iconic historical events like the scuppering of the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot, Follett has once more lit the touch paper of English history and allowed it to explode across the pages in in all its vivid technicolour.

A Column of Fire is a big book whichever way you look at it… a voluminous volume of dramas packed full of big themes, big history, big conflicts, and some of the biggest names of the Tudor period.

Read as either a sequel to the earlier books (fans will enjoy references to familiar names from Kingsbridge’s past) or as a riveting standalone novel, this is a full-on Follett experience to enjoy from first to last.

(Macmillan, hardback, £20)

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