Christmas 1558, and young Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge to find his world has changed. The ancient stones of Kingsbridge Cathedral look down on a city torn by religious hatred. Europe is in turmoil as high principles clash bloodily with friendship, loyalty and love, Ned soon finds himself on the opposite side from the girl he longs to marry, Margery Fitzgerald.
Then Elizabeth Tudor becomes queen and all of Europe turns against England. The shrewd, determined, young monarch immediately sees up the country’s first secret service to give her early warning of assassination plots, rebellions and invasion plans.
Elizabeth know that alluring, headstrong Mary Queen of Scots lies in wait in Paris. Part of a brutally ambitious French family, Mary has been proclaimed the rightful ruler of England, with her own supporters scheming to get rid of the new queen.
Over a turbulent half century, the love between Ned and Margery seems doomed, as extremism sparks violence from Edinburgh to Geneva. With Elizabeth clinging precariously to her throne and her principles, protected by a small, dedicated group of resourceful spies and courageous secret agents, it becomes clear that real enemies – then as now – are not the rival religions. The true battle pitched those who believe in tolerance and compromise against the tyrants who would impose their ideas on everyone else – no matter the cost.
A Column of Fire, is the third in the Kingsbridge series of books. I read the previous two books, The Pillars of the Earth and A World Without End, about four years ago and loved them, this third book had a lot to live up to. I have to say this more than lived up to my expectations, there are not enough superlatives to describe this book; this is how historical fiction should be written, it is amazing.
It may be the third in the series but it can be read as a stand alone novel, as this book begins two hundred years after the second book finished. In the first few pages there are references to characters from the previous books; Prior Philip, Tom Builder, Caris the nun and founder of Kingsbridge hospital and Merthin Fitzgerald who built the bridge, but this has no impact on the story. I liked the mention of the previous characters, it had a comforting effect, like meeting old friends, and relaxed me in to the book, which is quite daunting at over one thousand pages long.
The narrative covers sixty two years, starting in 1558 and finishing in 1620, and follows Ned Willard’s life and work for the monarchy. The time period covers many famous historical events, the French taking back Calais, the defeat of the Spanish Armada, the rise and fall of Mary Queen of Scots, and the reign of three different English monarchs. All this history and the size of the book may seem daunting but Ken Follett is such a talented author, in that he makes this such an easy book to read and follow. His prose flows seamlessly, with outstanding attention to detail that drags you in and doesn’t let go. We travel to Spain, France, the Netherlands, the New World and the descriptive writing brings to life the different smells, sounds, and sights of these very different countries.
As well as different locations there are a large cast of characters, both fictional and historical in this story. Again, what I found impressive was that I never forgot who anyone was, all the characters were memorable and integral to the plot, but if you are worried Ken Follett has included a list of the characters and where they are from at the beginning, but I never used it. The characters were larger than life, they jumped out of the page in a good way and this is why I think they stuck in my mind. There was a verisimilitude to the characters, their emotions, place in society, their relationships all brilliantly written an applied to the narrative; by the end of the book I felt I knew them like life long friends, when in fact it was just the week it took to read.
A Column of Fire is a truly spectacular piece of historical fiction. It covers all bases; a fantastic plot, believable characters and well written prose. It has love, intrigue, war, subterfuge, family and political feuds and revenge. All these combine to make this one of the most breathtaking books I have read. If you enjoy historical fiction this is a must read, you will be blown away with this outstanding novel.