I received this book for an honest review and my first thought was about its physical form. 919 pages are crammed into tiny font on thin paper in a voluminous paperback that makes it really uncomfortable to hold and hard to read. If this had been a standalone book, I would not even have picked it off the bookshelf. But I read and enjoyed ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ and the slightly less romantic ‘World without End’. As book 3 in the series, I had to start this one and once I did, true to Ken Follett style, it had me gripped.
‘A Column of Fire’ is set in the 1500s in a Kingsbridge now torn by conflict. Here’s where you get to see how religion goes from being a spiritual guide to a dangerous political machine. In the past two books (and centuries), monarchs battled over land, property and wealth. In this one, they begin to battle over something even bigger – people’s belief and loyalty. Protestantism and Catholism go head to head in vicious, intolerant massacre. Overlaying these are the political machinations of the surrounding regions like France, Spain and Scotland.
History buffs will enjoy the references to the major Queens of England. Kingsbridge, having grown from the little village of the 1100s of The Pillars of the Earth, is evidently a bustling city by the 1500s and it produces several people who go onto play key roles in the fates of these kings & queens (Mary of the Scots, Elizabeth of England, Felipe of Spain, James of England). The Pope & the Catholic Church come across as just as powerful political forces as each of the monarchs.
These fictitious characters play major roles with Mary, Elizabeth and the others being support characters. That said, the Kingsbridge books have started to feel less and less about intimate stories of ordinary people and more about chronicling history in a fictional setting. While ‘The Pillars of the Earth’ was about small, unimportant people (of their times) like a stone mason, a woman of the forest and a monk, ‘A Column of Fire’ deals with the decisions and tribulations of successful traders, landed peers and political advisors.
I also saw a few modern phrases/references slip in which seemed incongruous to the timeline of the story. For instance, Page 99 had a mention of ‘a few Native Americans’ when I’m not sure if they were called that in the 1500s before the colonisation of America.
I didn’t enjoy this book as much as the previous two (especially the first!). The plot seemed more important than the characters and I found it easy to skip past entire pages. Given how long the book is, at some point of time it became about identifying what parts of the story were going to meander into things I’ve read about in history already, rather than where the plot itself was going to take me next. I do however want to mention that this is an extraordinarily clear-headed look at the exploitation of women & other races by a white male author. It’s also good to read a book that doesn’t pull any punches when it addresses the unfettered greed for power by the Catholic Church as well as the Protestant community, when it addresses history.
If you are new to the Kingsbridge series, don’t worry about not having read the previous two. Each book in this series stands by itself, being that they’re each set 200 years apart. But going through them in order allows you the additional enjoyment of watching regular lives turn into history and then legend and then be forgotten.