In a way, it’s hard to remember that Ken Follett got his start writing thrillers (The Eye of the Needle was his breakthrough book back in 1978, and he won an Edgar Award for that as best novel), since his most recent books, all of which have been bestsellers, have been huge historical novels (most recently the Century Trilogy, following a cast of characters from World War I through World War II and into the 1980’s). He first broke away from the thriller vein with a wonderful and absorbing book about the building of a cathedral in the middle ages, The Pillars of the Earth. He followed this up, years later, with World Without End, set in the same English town but two centuries later, with the descendants of some of the characters from the first book. Now, nine years after World Without End, Ken Follett has returned to that world with his newest book, A Column of Fire. If you’re the sort of person (as I am) who loves to dive into a different world (whether it’s a real historical place or something created wholly from the author’s imagination) and live there for a while, then set aside some time for A Column of Fire (set aside a fair amount of time, since the book is 916 pages long).
We are back in Knightsbridge, home of the cathedral in Pillars, and scene of the action in World Without End, but now it’s two hundred years after the last book, and Queen Elizabeth I is on the throne of England, though not as securely as she would prefer. The Reformation in England is still in its early days, and Catholics and Protestants are struggling for power, creating an almost insurmountable divide between people in the two groups. Ned Willard, the protagonist of A Column of Fire, is prevented from marrying the woman he loves because of religious differences, and instead he goes to work as a secret agent for Queen Elizabeth. As violence erupts through the country and across Europe, Ned finds himself in the middle of endless intrigue and danger, both to himself and to the queen he’s pledged to protect. Assassination plots, invasion plans and uprisings are common, and Elizabeth, to stay on the throne, needs to stay abreast of all the possible problems that could topple her reign and send England into civil war. The spy system created by Elizabeth and her people became the basis for the British Secret Service in modern times.
Set in a tumultuous period of English history, with all the attention to detail and fascinating characters, historical and invented, A Column of Fire is the kind of book that draws you right in and makes you forget, for a while at least, what century this is. If you’re a historical fiction fan, or a Tudor history buff, come in and pick up A Column of Fire.