A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

Years before I started this blog – sometime in the 1990s, anyway – I read The Pillars of the Earth, Ken Follett’s epic novel about the building of a cathedral in the English market town of Kingsbridge during the 12th century. I found it much more exciting than it had initially sounded and I was soon gripped by the evil machinations of William Hamleigh, Prior Philip’s battle against the ruthless Bishop Waleran, and the seemingly doomed romance between Jack and Aliena. I’m sure I would be much more critical of it if I re-read it today and more likely to be bothered by the historical inaccuracies, but I loved it at the time. I wasn’t expecting a sequel, but one was published in 2007 – World Without End, set in the same fictional town (or city, as it has now become) more than a century later. I enjoyed that one too, although in some ways it felt to me like the same story being told again.

A Column of Fire, published in 2017, takes us back to Kingsbridge again for a third story, set this time in the 16th century. As the novel opens in 1558, Ned Willard is returning home to Kingsbridge from Calais, where he has spent a year working in the family business. Ned can’t wait to be reunited with his mother, Alice, who runs the Kingsbridge branch of the business, but there’s also someone else he is looking forward to seeing again – Margery Fitzgerald, the young woman he hopes to marry. Unfortunately for Ned, things have changed during his absence and Margery is now betrothed to Bart, the heir of the Earl of Shiring (and those of you who have read the other Kingsbridge novels will remember exactly what those Earls of Shiring are like). Margery would prefer to marry Ned, but her parents won’t allow it – the Fitzgeralds, like the Earl and his family, are Catholic, but the Willards are suspected of having Protestant sympathies.

While Mary Tudor still sits on the throne of England, families like the Fitzgeralds and the Shirings may have the upper hand, but Ned knows that one day things will change. Mary’s half-sister Elizabeth, promising greater religious tolerance, is waiting for her turn to wear the crown and, when she does, she will need men like Ned to be her trusted servants and spies.

Across the sea, meanwhile, France is also experiencing a period of religious conflict and turmoil as the ambitious and staunchly Catholic Guise brothers, whose young niece Mary, Queen of Scots has married the heir to the throne, engage in a power struggle with Catherine de’ Medici, the Queen of France. In Paris, we meet one of the villains of the novel, Pierre Aumande, a man who believes he has Guise blood and will do anything to inveigle his way into that family – including hunting down French Protestants and sending them to their deaths.

So far, I have only touched on a few of the characters and storylines this novel contains. There are many, many more. We follow the adventures of Ned’s brother Barney in Spain and then the New World. We meet Sylvie Palot, a French Huguenot who works in a Parisian bookshop, buying and selling forbidden literature. We see the story of Mary, Queen of Scots play out as she returns to Scotland and eventually becomes a prisoner on the orders of Elizabeth I. And we witness the Siege of Calais, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre, the Spanish Armada and the Gunpowder Plot. The novel has a huge scope, and that, I think, was a problem. There’s too much happening – far too much for one book – and that made it difficult for me to become truly absorbed in the lives and struggles of any of the characters. There’s no depth, no passion, no emotion; I didn’t really care about Ned and Margery’s romance, and I didn’t hate Pierre and the other villains as much as we were probably supposed to either.

That doesn’t mean I found nothing to like about this book. It’s certainly a fascinating period of history to read about and I can understand why Follett didn’t want to leave anything out, even though I would have preferred a tighter focus on just a few of the historical figures and incidents, rather than everything and everyone! The main theme of religious change and conflict was handled well. I really enjoyed the first half of the book but my interest started to wane as characters were abandoned for long stretches while others were introduced and as we spent more time in France, Spain, Scotland and the Caribbean, almost losing sight of Kingsbridge entirely.

I’m not really sure why this book involved Kingsbridge at all; I’m assuming it was probably done for marketing purposes, to pull in readers who enjoyed the previous two novels, but I think if it had been written as a standalone with no connection to the other two I would have had different expectations and might have judged it less harshly. One of the things I liked about The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End was that they were set in and around Kingsbridge Cathedral itself. We get to know the people who live and work in the city and there’s a strong sense of community as they come together to confront their enemies and face the threats of the outside world, but A Column of Fire is a different sort of story with a different feel. If anyone else has read this book I would be interested to know what you thought of it and how you felt it compared to the first two books.

15 thoughts on “A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

  1. Margaret says:

    Reading your post reminded me that I’ve read The Pillars of the Earth, which I enjoyed but found it long-winded and repetitive and a bit like a soap opera as terrible things happen, the characters overcome them and recover only to be knocked down again by more terrible events. I enjoyed the details of building a cathedral and the people involved in it. Parts of it came to life more than others such as the story of Thomas à Becket’s murder in Canterbury Cathedral.

    I have a copy of World Without End, but haven’t read it yet and also a copy of Fall of Giants (also not read) set at the beginning of the 20th century. They are all huge books that take ages to read and although I would love to read them it does stop me reading other books – and I keep putting off reading them. Even so I would also like to read A Column of Fire, but I just don’t know when …

    • Helen says:

      Yes, I suppose The Pillars of the Earth was quite repetitive, although I do remember loving it at the time. I haven’t read Fall of Giants and am not sure if I will. I used to have a lot more patience with very long books than I do now – I think blogging has made me more aware of how many books I want to read and how little time I have to read them all in!

  2. Sandra says:

    I read my first Follett last year – Year of Giants. Whilst I know just what you mean, Helen, about the huge scope coming at a cost to characterisation and intimacy with events, I felt that this was acceptable with FoG because it makes no secret of the sweeping themes. Follett was writing about world history – difficult not to be sweeping even in a novel as long as that one was! I can see that with the series you’re reviewing a narrower scope might have proved more rewarding to the reader. That said, I was pleasantly surprised by FoG. Not perfect of course, but very readable. I raced through it, and I’m looking forward to following up with the next one very soon. I’m not sure I would want to read the Kingsbridge books though.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you enjoyed Fall of Giants – it sounds as though the sweeping epic style was much better suited to that sort of story than to this one. In my opinion this book didn’t belong in the Kingsbridge series at all as it had an entirely different feel to the previous two books, which was disappointing as I’d been really looking forward to reading it.

  3. Judy Krueger says:

    I actually did reread Pillars of the Earth back in 2005 because I knew he had a sequel coming. It had lost its magic but I too loved it the first time. I never got to the others. My sister has read his 20th century books and found them good but I am not sure they would stand up to much of the great literature I have already read set then.

    • Helen says:

      I’ve thought about rereading The Pillars of the Earth but I’m afraid that it would lose its magic for me too. A lot of people seem to have enjoyed the 20th century series but I’m not sure if I want to read them either.

  4. Jennifer says:

    I have read it, and my reaction is similar to yours. I loved the first two books: the building of the cathedral held my attention, the characters were almost secondary. Sigh.

    • Helen says:

      I loved the way the first two books centred around the cathedral and the town of Kingsbridge…I thought it was disappointing that this third book was so different!

  5. Carmen says:

    I read The Pillars of the Earth three times in the ’90s. It’s true that it is repetitive, too much perhaps, but there is such a grand scope of the times in that novel, such a sense of place, and the exploration of human emotions so well done, that one had no other choice than to love it. I’m sure it would be a different reading experience if I re-read it today, but back then it was the first historical fiction novel outside the school curriculum that I had ever read. I read (maybe?) the first hundred pages of World Without End and I found it wanting. There was too much explicit sex and little else, so I abandoned it and have never gone back. I’m determined to read it though, but I don’t know when. A Column of Fire will sure follow, if I care enough.

    I imagine that what he tried to accomplish with this novel was exactly what he did (I own them but haven’t read them) with the 20th century trilogy: explore the times through the people. The 16th century was an exciting time, and political intrigues were in order, so it’s ripe for exploiting. Too bad that, according to your review, he took more material than he knew what to do with. Perhaps a smaller scope, or more books, would have suited the material better.

    • Helen says:

      I’m glad you loved The Pillars of the Earth, Carmen. I was just starting to get into historical fiction when I read it too – maybe I would judge it differently today, now that I’ve read a lot more historical fiction to compare it with, but I thought it was a great book at the time. I can’t remember thinking that there was too much sex in World Without End, but I do remember feeling that some of the characters and plot points were just copies of the ones in The Pillars of the Earth. I did enjoy that book as well, though.

      My problem with A Column of Fire was that, despite it being described as part three of the Kingsbridge series, very little of it was actually set in Kingsbridge! Maybe if it had just been written as a separate, standalone novel I would have liked it more.

  6. www.rosesintherainmemoir.wordpress.com says:

    I have read all three of these and thoroughly enjoyed them. The lapse in time by centuries did disconcert me as I began each successive story, but with further reading I fell under the spell of that particular time and place. With you, however, I agree that A Column of Fire introduced way too many new and different characters and, probably, would have fared better as a stand-alone book. Nonetheless, Follette has treated the history and culture, political and religious strife quite well. In his books, I keep imagining myself living in that particular time and place as the person I am now: How would I have managed? Would my family and I gone unscathed in a small village or come under “fire” in that cultural and religious climate? Even today, in America, we have been affected by our national politics and even the Church. So, there we are!

    • Helen says:

      I think A Column of Fire would have worked better for me as a separate book, with no connection to the other Kingsbridge ones, as the thing I enjoyed so much about the previous two was the setting and the sense of community. I agree that he dealt very well with the political and religious issues of the 16th century, though. It’s interesting to think of how we would have managed in earlier time periods!

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