The Kingsbridge novels are essentially independent narratives that share a common historical background. “A Column of Fire,” however, stands slightly apart from the others. First, it moves beyond the Middle Ages into the very different world of Elizabethan England. Second, it ranges well beyond Kingsbridge into the wider world of a divided Europe, propelling a large cast of characters through England, Scotland, France, Spain and the Netherlands. While the first two volumes dealt with ambitious building projects — the cathedral in “Pillars of the Earth,” a bridge and hospital in “World Without End” — the new book proceeds from a more abstract premise: the radical notion of religious tolerance.
The narrative begins in 1558, late in the reign of Bloody Mary, the ferocious Catholic queen who burned hundreds of heretics (i.e. Protestants) at the stake. Upon Mary’s premature death, her Protestant half sister Elizabeth assumed the throne, promising a more tolerant attitude toward religious differences. But her reforms suffered a near-fatal blow when Pope Pius V excommunicated Elizabeth and all who supported her, deepening the existing schism throughout most of Europe.
This is the world through which Follett’s characters must make their way. Two families, the Willards and the Fitzgeralds, dominate the novel. Ned Willard is the oldest son of a prosperous Kingsbridge family that loses everything in the religious conflicts of the day. Ned, a moderate Protestant, also loses any hope of marrying Margery, daughter of the devoutly Catholic Fitzgeralds. Ned will eventually enter the service of the queen’s spymaster, Sir Francis Walsingham, and Margery will make a bad but dutiful marriage to an appropriately Catholic nobleman. Other characters include Sylvie Palot, a Parisian Protestant and a clandestine seller of forbidden books; Pierre Aumande, an ambitious climber willing to commit any atrocity to appease his Catholic masters; and Margery’s brother Rollo, who will devote his life to the destruction of the Protestant faith. These and others will find their lives shaped and sometimes warped by the unnatural pressures of an endless religious war. Like its predecessors in the Kingsbridge series, “A Column of Fire” is absorbing, painlessly educational and a great deal of fun. Follett uses the tools of popular fiction to great effect in these books, illuminating a nation’s gradual progress toward modernity. The central theme of this latest book — the ongoing conflict between tolerance and fanaticism — lends both relevance and resonance to the slowly unfolding story of England’s past. In Follett’s hands, that story takes on a narrative life that is difficult, if not impossible, to resist. I only hope it continues. There are many more stories to be told.
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