Monday, May 28, 2018

A Column of Fire

A Column of Fire, Ken Follett

Finally to the third instalment of the Kingsbridge novels, and Follett has again created a captivating tale, with extensive character lists and details.

To draw in previous fans The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, the story starts in Kingsbridge, with the scene set between the two rival families of Ned Willard and Margery Fitzgerald.

Set mostly in Elizabethan England, with some side stories in France, the real story here is no longer Kingsbridge, but rather the Catholic and Protestant power struggles of the 1500s.  There are some characters who actually believe the truths that they espouse, but the majority are willing to serve whichever religion suits their purpose, be it the faith of Rome, the new Protestants, or indeed, just money and power.

The book covers the entire Elizabethan era, and the times just prior and post as well. As such, there is a huge amount of history covered through the exploits of the characters, some fictional and some historical. Somewhat surprisingly Follett makes occasional hints throughout that are giveaways for the ensuing plot lines, taking the surprise out of a couple of key developments.

I liked it, but probably not as much as the two first Kingsbridge novels. Interestingly I thought that since the entire premise is the argument between Protestantism and Catholicism, I’m not sure that the differences between the two were ever adequately explained in a way that would help the modern reader understand what the big deal was. Having said that, most of the populace at the time also probably didn’t really care that much either, and changed religion according to the monarch of the day as was appropriate.  As you would expect there are extremists on both sides, neither behaving in a way that honours their claimed faith in God. I imagine particularly Catholic readers would be offended at their portrayal, there was really only one woman Catholic that was a redeeming character.

However, it is fair to acknowledge that perhaps many of the people fighting these battles were not really fighting about religion, but their place of power, their influence on royals and whether their business prospects would be damaged by their allegiances. No one could argue that the monarchs of the time had pure motives either in their choice of religion.

The overarching message of the book is that tolerance is the way to go and should be the way that prevails.  Read through the lens of the 21st century that is no surprise, but I wonder whether the people of the time felt that way too?

As with his other two novels, there is a level of lewdness to his references to sex and violence that are unnecessary. Someone mentioned to me recently that thought Follett was very sexist in the way he portrayed women. I have tended to think he is rather accurately portraying the common views of the time. However, having read these all again, I am starting to think they have a point. There is a crassness to his depictions of male and female relationships, and a callousness to most sexual references which isn’t necessary. In fact, the story would have been stronger without them. Sometimes I wonder if authors include these types of things to engage a wider range of readers.

So, a good read, and a satisfying third instalment of the Kingsbridge books, but not outstanding in my opinion.

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