Saturday, November 04, 2017

Book Review - A Column of Fire by Ken Follett

I read Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth when I was fourteen, and it was like being hit on the chest with something heavy (maybe the book itself - it was one of the longest and heaviest I had read till then). I loved it absolutely - the descriptions of the cathedral being built in Kingsbridge, the beautiful women and their drama-filled lives, the rich imagery and narrative. Years later, visiting an actual medieval cathedral for the first time, many of the terms the audio guide used were familiar, because I had already "lived" through the building of a cathedral.

A Column of Fire is the third book in the Kingsbridge series. Strictly speaking, it's not a sequel - it's set many centuries after the first one, and the only thing that connects the books is the setting of Kingsbridge. I'm not sure how World Without End (the second in the series) is, but A Column of Fire isn't set only in Kingsbridge. A lot of the action takes place in other places - Paris and London being the main ones.

One of the main threads in the book is the love story of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald. The two are a young Kingsbridge couple in love, but Margery's family is against their union. A rich Catholic merchant family, they want her to marry into nobility and raise their social status.

The Ned-Margery love story plays out against the backdrop of almost fifty years of Protestant-Catholic conflict in France and Britain in the sixteenth century. The ebb and flow of these two opposing views on Christianity makes for fascinating reading - how something as simple as a change in monarch can change the religious tendencies of an entire country. There were killings aplenty on both sides in the name of religion.

Ken Follett takes actual historical events and adds to them some great characters to show us how these events impacted ordinary lives - Ned Willard of the Secret Service (a tolerant Protestant), Margery Fitgerald (a Catholic), a French villain by the name of Pierre de Aumand (a Catholic who instigates Protestant killings to further his own ends), a Protestant book-seller named Sylvie Palot.

Personally, I didn't know much of the history of this period before this book. But that didn't prevent ACoF from being an engrossing read. It's a great introduction to famous personalities like Queen Elizabeth the first (she of the white face and red hair), Queen Mary Tudor of the Scots (imprisoned for decades by Elizabeth) and Duke Scarface of France. And you also get a ring-side view on historical events such as Elizabeth's ascension to the throne, Queen Mary's wedding to the French king, the failure of the attempted Spanish invasion of Britain, and the St Bartholomew's Day masscare in Paris in 1572.

If I have one quibble, it is that it feels like Follett is breezing through history at too fast a pace. Fifty years is a long time to cover even for a history book. But there were certain threads in the book that could have been excluded (Ned's brother's, for example).

Also did it meet the expectations I had from reading Pillars of the Earth almost two decades ago? No, it didn't. But I'm not sure I can blame Follett for that. Maybe I was more wide-eyed and open to such immersive reads then? Growing up can sometimes be a pain. 
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