A Column of Fire

Written by Ken Follett
Review by Katharine Quarmby

This engrossing book is the third novel in Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series. The first two were worldwide best sellers and the third is absorbing: it will doubtless tempt new readers, like me, to read the earlier books.

In Christmas 1558, Ned Willard returns home to Kingsbridge to win his true love, Margery Fitzgerald. Ned loses Margery, as her Catholic family needs a more auspicious alliance. Mary Tudor is on the throne; friends are tortured and even executed, as Catholics and Protestants go to war, although often betrayal is for economic gain, rather than belief. “The Fitzgeralds had won. They had killed the man who cheated them; they had stolen the Willards’ fortune and they had kept their daughter from marrying Ned.”

Away from Kingsbridge, Follett paints a wider, but no less cruel picture. As a young Protestant Elizabeth Tudor takes the throne, Europe unites against England. Elizabeth is set against her cousin, Mary, Queen of Scots, who is waiting to wrest the throne from her. The wily Queen Bess creates a secret service to protect her from plots, rebellion and even assassination. Ned joins it.

Follett shows empathy for all those used as pawns in a wider game—with the young Mary Stuart, forced to (appear to) lose her virginity to her spouse, Francis, in front of a roomful of witnesses; with those forced to conceal their faith or face death as the religious wars gather traction; and with a man and woman set apart by forces far greater than love.

This tome of a book combines romance, history and drama in equal measures, in a tale that soaks the reader in the heart-churning life of the 16th century. Through this complex novel Follett shows how tolerance is worth defending. A book for our times.