Epic sizzles with 16th-century intrigue

Nancy Gilson For The Columbus Dispatch
“A Column of Fire” (Viking, 916 pages, $36) by Ken Follett

Fact and fiction are so thoroughly mixed in Ken Follett’s gargantuan new novel, “A Column of Fire,” that the author helpfully provides a list of the characters who are real at the end of the book.

In the third installment of his “Kingsbridge” series (following “The Pillars of the Earth” and “World Without End”), Follett visits 16th-century England, when brutal conflict was raging between Protestants and Catholics. Under Queen “Bloody” Mary, Protestants were persecuted and often burned at the stake. When Elizabeth I came to power, she envisioned a kingdom in which no one died for his or her religion, but continued tension between Protestants and Catholics — as well as religious-fueled assassination plots, rebellions and invasion plans from other European countries — undermined any peace.

Follett’s main character is Ned Willard, a young English nobleman in love with Margery, a member of a fervent and ambitious Catholic family. When Margery’s family marries her off to an earl, heartbroken Ned joins Queen Elizabeth’s secret service, helping to secure her power.

Multiple other characters and plots are woven into the 916-page novel that jumps from England to France, Spain and even the New World. Ned’s brother, Barney, becomes a seafaring captain. Sylvie, the Protestant seller of banned bibles and books in Paris, marries the unscrupulous Pierre Aumande, a Catholic spy eager to betray her, her family and their community of worshippers.

These fictitious characters interact with the factual ones, including Mary Stuart, Queen of the Scots; the sea captain Sir Francis Drake; Caterina de’Medici of France; Sir William Cecil, adviser to Elizabeth; Guy Fawkes, the English Catholic who fought for the Spanish; and many more.

The epic novel spans 1558 to 1620 and is loaded with intrigue, betrayal, violence, romance, sex and even idealism — although the high morals of the characters mostly erode as the turbulent events mount up.

Follett’s writing can be clunky, with dialogue and descriptions that sound too contemporary. But his great big tale moves as swiftly and vigorously as one imagines the flagships of her majesty’s navy moved to protect England.

For fans of the two previous novels in the series, Follett drops in reminders of the characters and activities from “The Pillars of the Earth,” and “World Without End,” books that span the 12th to 14th centuries. “A Column of Fire” joins those two as a hefty crash course in British history wrapped up in thrilling drama.


“A Column of Fire” (Viking, 916 pages, $36) by Ken Follett