A Column of Fire (Kingsbridge Series #3), by Ken Follett

Eight stars

Ken Follett again took a lengthy hiatus before penning this third novel in the series, which is reflected in the writing and shall be discussed below. Kingsbridge, with its cathedral and mighty bridge, again proves to be the initial backdrop of this thoroughly researched tome, set in the 16th century. The great community emerges in the opening pages of the novel, where the reader encounters Ned Willard, returning after a period away. As the snow falls, causing the great Cathedral to disappear, the symbolism of quick changes becomes apparent. However, there is more brewing in Kingsbridge and England as a whole, which pushes the narrative into a fiery discussion soon enough. Queen Mary Tudor is on the throne and has turned the country back to its Catholic foundation, which is causing some concerns amongst her subjects. Forced to flee Catholicism under Henry VIII, people took up with the new Church of England and sought to pave the way for Protestantism in the country. Kingsbridge monastery, so important in the first two novels, lost its firmament under the King and the monks were dispersed. However, as Queen Mary appears to be terminally ill, there is talk of the succession. Two camps emerge: those wanting continued Catholicism turn to Mary, Queen of Scots (and France); and those who seek to lessen the constraints of religious conformity turn to Princess Elizabeth Tudor, half-sister to the current queen. The battle lines are drawn and the choice turns the country against itself. Ned finds himself in an odd position as he witnesses this and takes up a post with the Elizabethan camp, only to become one of her most trusted advisors. Plots to kill Elizabeth emerge alongside attempts to get Scottish Mary to return to the land of her birth to claim what some feel will rightfully be hers. When the Queen dies, it is left to Parliament to make the choice, which Follett illustrates as being highly controversial and problematic, but Elizabeth soon ascends reigns as the first of her name. The new Queen riles up everyone by seeking tolerance and acceptance of any form of Christianity in England, choosing not to side with either Protestants or Catholics wholeheartedly. What follows is a collection of stories that emerge throughout Europe, using a handful of characters who illustrate the religious persecution of both Protestants and Catholics, using the Pope and various monarchs to play Christian chess with their subjects as they shed blood to see their branch of the religion succeed. Ned is placed in a position to not only try to win back the love of his life, but to accept fate and try to reinvent himself, while England is being torn apart. Follett illustrates this battle over decades, while the characters evolve but still have time to prove as scandalous as ever (what would a Kingsbridge novel be without some drama?!). By the end, Follett has shown that religious intolerance is by no means a new thing in the world, but that it can be traced back centuries, where ‘soldiers’ were blinded to acceptance and sought to outmanoeuvre their labelled enemies. A sensational addition to the Kingsbridge series, though it does not entirely fit with the other two novels. Fans of historical fiction will surely love this tome, alongside the most open-minded and ‘tolerant’ Kingsbridge series fans. Patience is a must before tackling this novel, so be wary if you seek a quick story and easy to decipher characters.

When I read the preface to Pillars of the Earth, I learned that Follett was not entirely comfortable with the subject matter when he first wrote that book. He knew little of the religious nuances of the Church, but has shown that age and dedication to research have changed his abilities. While I have some issues with this book, I cannot deny that the research and thoroughly intricate cast of characters make this one a must read for dedicated readers and fans of history. Follett is again forced to use scores of characters to flesh out the story, some pulled from the history books and others completely of his own imagination. As with the previous two books, occupations are varied, as are the social standings of those who grace the pages of this book. However, the characters from history dominate and thereby lead the story, forcing the ‘nobody’ characters to fall into line. There is still a thread of love, romance, rape, and deception, but it proves to be a garnish in a larger story that speaks of intolerance at a time when religion in Europe was (d)evolving. The dedicated reader will surely find a few characters onto whom they can latch and find some solace, though there are an equal number who can be hated for their actions. The story of this novel is well developed and presented in a methodical way, such that the reader can see not only the issue at the core of the story, but its fermentation over the decades. This leads me to my primary issue with the book, which is that it does not fit nicely into how Pillars and World Without End places Kingsbridge at the centre. There is action in Kingsbridge and the Cathedral does bear mention on occasion, but a great deal of the story takes place elsewhere, which lessens the impact of the community that readers have come to love. For Follett fans, the influence of his recently completed Century series is blunt in this narrative and plot development. Follett develops mini-stories throughout Europe, presenting characters who exemplify the religious issues in Spain and France, as well as in England, the attentive reader will remember such ‘branch-offs’ over the aforementioned trilogy. The reader learns of these struggles and waits to see how the numerous spheres will come together and eventually meld into a single storyline. While I am not a professional author, I might suggest that Kingsbridge have remained the central focus of the story and Follett show how this continental war and numerous assassination attempts on the country’s monarch affected the locals. Alas, that was lost and Ned Willard, a Kingsbridgean, is the major glue that binds the story to being a part of this other trilogy. With numerous monarchs who flex their muscle throughout to show how Catholicism is the only way, I can easily find justification to have this work for my reading challenge and I can only hope that others will find the thread of my argument and agree. While I found this to be the weakest of the three novels in the series, I still enjoyed it a great deal. I would recommend it to those who have made their way through the others two, in hopes that they will find as much enjoyment in the historical references as I did.

Kudos, Mr. Follett, for such a stellar piece of historical fiction. Some of those threads you left blowing in the wind might make for an interesting fourth novel, though I am not pushing for another round, unless you’re eager to return to Kingsbridge proper.

This book fulfills Equinox I (A Book for All Seasons) Book Challenge for Topic #3: A Book About Royalty

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: https://www.goodreads.com/group/show/248185-a-book-for-all-seasons

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