The Third Best Novel I've Ever Read
Ken Follett's A Column of Fire is part of the Kingsbridge series that began with The Pillars of the Earth, which I rank as the second best book I have ever read. (Shogun, by James Clavell, is #1.) So to say the least, I was eager to read this, and having absorbed this 900 page (in my 2019 edition) in less than a week, I did it.
The story takes up back in time to the Elizabethan era, when England, France and other countries were racked in religious battles – some personal, some with weapons – as the Protestant movement hatched and swept from Germany east. Ned Willard, the protagonist, becomes a spy and advisor to Elizabeth the First, chiefly but not exclusively in reference to the Catholic vs. Protestant show of intolerance. The potential for civil war hovers in the air, and Elizabeth’s reign is constantly threatened.
The characters are well drawn, even minor ones. Follett, as usual, is a master at narrative, describing to the minutest degree all that the characters can touch, see, smell, hear and taste. You are put right in the action, as though you are participating in whatever’s taking place on the page. And a lot is taking place, believe me.
Many of the characters are taken from real life, while others are fictional. The extent of the research done for this book is substantial, adding richness to the story that some historical fiction novels lack. You will worry about Ned and abhor his main adversaries, Rollo Fitzgerald and Pierre Aumande, the former an utterly intolerant scoundrel, the latter a totally self-interested fiend. These are two of the best bad guys you’ll ever come across in a novel.
The novel is well worth the time investment, and you don’t need to read The Pillars of the Earth first, although you should read it sometime. Each book in the series stands alone, while connected by location on the town of Kingsbridge.