Book Review: A Column of Fire


If you have the time, I highly recommend reading this historical novel by Ken Follett. As you know from my prior reviews, I do not gravitate toward historical novels, but they sometimes fall in my lap and I find them interesting and worthy of my precious free time. This novel, and others by Follett, are definitely worth it. I caution you that the paperback version of this book was just over 900 pages! It took time to read from beginning to end, but it did not take much time to get me hooked on the characters and the story.

Set in the mid-1500s in Europe, the undercurrents of the entire book formed around the fight between the Catholics and the Protestants in gaining control over the thrones of France, England, Scotland, and Spain. Queen Elizabeth rises to the throne of England while the rest of Europe turns against her as being too liberal and allowing freedom of religion. Mary, Queens of Scots, is her cousin, who is imprisoned and along with her supporters tries to unseat Elizabeth – an attempt which fails miserably for Mary and her followers. Wealthy families are vying for positions with various religious factions to get political advantages. The English are spying on the rest of Europe trying to prevent Elizabeth’s being assassinated. Mobs go home to home, business to business, searching out Protestants who are worshipping in secrecy. If there is a mess to be had, you will find one in every corner of this book.

The main character is Ned Willard. As a young man, Ned studied politics and helped his mother with their family shipping business. His first love, Margery Fitzgerald, was forbidden to see him as she was from a devout Catholic family who required her to marry a man of their choosing and with their same stature in the community, which was not Ned. Ned then left his town of Kingsbridge and went to London to work for then-Princess Elizabeth. He travelled with her and learned about politics and diplomacy. He eventually becomes the main spy upon which Elizabeth relies to ensure that her position on the throne remains solid. Throughout the story, Ned goes about his business for Her Majesty, averting an assassination attempt, and remaining by the Monarch’s side until her death.

Aside from Ned’s professional life, we see how his personal life develops over the years while Margery remains ever-present in his life.

I cannot say enough great things about this book. The historical perspective is truly amazing and educational. The fight for religious freedom and how that affected each part of everyday life was eye opening. The murder and mayhem that occurred in the name of a religion or of a king or queen was utterly bewildering. If you have the time, get this book – borrow it from the library, pick it up at a rummage sale (like I did), download it to your ipad – but read it! You will not regret it. Enjoy!

WLIB Presidenst's message Summer 2023