Title: A Column of Fire
Writer: Ken Follett
Publishing House: Viking
Date of Publication: September 12th 2017
Rating: 4 stars
‘’People should hear Bible stories from their parish priest. If they start reading for themselves, they’re sure to get the wrong idea.’’
Some things never change…
1558, Kingsbridge. Europe is once again in disarray, torn by trivial religious differences. The vicious battle between Catholics and Protestants has never been more violent, sending countries to war and misery. Spain, France, England. The powerful young queen Elizabeth finds her future, her life threatened by the existence of Mary Stuart and the Pope orders the ‘’faithful’’ Catholic Englishmen to disobey and rise against their monarch. The danger coming from Spain is always present and France remains a formidable enemy. In the midst of this storm, two young people dare to dream of a common future. Margery and Ned, followers of different dogmas, find themselves torn apart by family disputes and malignant forces.
This is our third journey to the exciting world of Kingsbridge, created by Ken Follett.
(Queen Elizabeth I)
Spanning decades, countries and characters, Follett’s novel begins in 1558 and ends in 1620. A period that saw blood spilled over matters that no one can verify whether they are actually true or not, an era that formulated much of the continent and the convictions we have come to know today. We travel to England, Scotland, France, Spain, Belgium, Italy, and the Caribbean and we meet Elizabeth I and her trusted advisors, Cecil and Walsingham, Mary Stuart, Charles IX and a plethora of prominent historical figures and fictional characters. The heart of the story is seen through the eyes of Ned and Margery and Follett does not abandon the techniques that were put to excellent use in The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. His descriptive writing and exhaustive historical research are here and stronger than ever. You will feel transported to the great cities where the action takes place, you will gaze upon the magnificent buildings, you will hear and smell the noise of the markets, the sacred psalms and incense in the beautiful churches, you will meet queens and kings, noblewomen and noblemen, peasants and vagabonds. Few writers have Follett’s talent of reviving and depicting every era in such a vivid and faithful way. However, while satisfying and interesting, A Column of Fire seemed to me to be the weakest installment in the Kingsbridge series.
I wasn’t bothered by the common theme of two young people who love each other but are driven apart and going through hell and back by external forces. Life isn’t a happy playground and circumstances were extremely unfavourable at those bygone times. The problems I faced occurred because of the large number of characters that had nothing to do with the actual story that lies at the heart of the novel. I’ve never had issues with large quantities of characters. On the contrary, I welcome such a feature because it provides us with a wide scope of perspectives, cultures, and ways of thinking. The problem was that, in my humble opinion, the characters in question were simply not interesting. At all. Apart from Margery, Ned, and the historical figures, the rest of the cast seemed boring, lifeless, clumsy copycats of characters in the previous installments of the Kingsbridge series. Sylvie, Pierre, Alison, Rollo and the awfully indifferent Ebrima were too simple, too familiar in the wrong way, too much.
For the first time in reading a novel by Ken Follett, I encountered traces of problematic dialogue. Not only words and phrases that sounded too contemporary, but the ‘’feeling’’ of the interactions came across as abrupt, almost wooden occasionally. This was evident in the last chapters of Part III and especially in Sylvie’s interactions with Ned which were almost painfully bad. No one is perfect, obviously, but when you read a Follett book the demands are higher and my expectations weren’t fully met here. On a side note, I am now convinced that despite his talent and perception, Follett writes the most distasteful, cringe-worthy ‘’love’’ scenes out of all the established writers I’ve had the chance to read. I would name them ‘’terror’’ scenes instead of ‘’love’’ scenes…
Apart from the exemplary depiction of the consequences of religious and political disputes, one feature that made me enjoy the novel is Margery. I loved her. She is such a wonderful character. In my opinion, she is better than Aliena and certainly much better than the irritating Carris. She is a woman who is not afraid to speak her mind and doesn’t hesitate to embrace and express the shady aspects of her personality. Same goes for Ned with the exception that he loses some of his spirit towards the latter parts of the story but perhaps this was the intention of the writer. In my opinion, Margery and Ned is the finest couple in the Kingsbridge series. The depiction of the two Queens, Elizabeth and Mary is faithful, extremely interesting and vivid. My favourite moment was the anticipation and the events that culminated to one of the most horrible moments in History. The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. I’ve always had a twisted fascination with those nightmarish days, possibly prompted by my love for Dumas’ Queen Margot (my grandmother’s favourite book.)
(The St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by François Dubois)
(One morning at the gates of the Louvre by Édouard Debat-Ponsan)
(The Marriage of Marguerite de Valois to Henri IV as depicted in the superb 1994 film La Reine Margot directed by Patrice Chéreau)
As far as the heart of the story goes, Follett again works wonders. Had the dialogue been better and the dramatis personae shorter, I would definitely regard this as the best part of the series. If we talked about any other writer, this would potentially become a 5-star read but it is Ken Follett and the expectations are sky-high, therefore 4 stars it will be.
‘’When a man is certain that he knows God’s will, and is resolved to do it regardless of the cost, he is the most dangerous person in the world.’’