When Ken Follett's "The Pillars of the Earth" was first published in 1989, it represented a considerable gamble. By that point, Follett had acquired a passionate following through such lean, propulsive thrillers as "Eye of the Needle" and "The Key to Rebecca." Suddenly, he was offering his readers something new and unexpected: a thousand-page epic set in 12th-century England about the building of a cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge. That gamble, of course, paid off handsomely. "Pillars" has since become Follett's most popular book, selling tens of millions of copies and establishing him as a master of the historical epic.
In recent years, Follett has turned his historical imagination in a different direction with the Century Trilogy, a series of doorstops that collectively reflect the wars, political movements and assorted catastrophes of the 20th century. But Kingsbridge remains a significant element in his fictional universe. "World Without End," a hugely successful follow-up to "Pillars," appeared in 2007. Now, more than 25 years after the series began, Follett turns once again to Kingsbridge in "A Column of Fire."
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.
Follett moves these characters briskly along through 50 eventful years encompassing births, deaths, marriages, murders and assorted betrayals. But the real spine of the narrative is the deeply researched historical backdrop against which these private dramas play out. History has provided Follett with some spectacular dramatic moments, and he takes full advantage, recreating them with a historian's eye for detail and a novelist's gift for narrative suspense. Among the more dramatic interludes are the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre of 1572, in which Parisian Catholics murdered thousands of Huguenots (French Protestants); the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots, an act that sent shock waves throughout Europe; and the miraculous defeat of the Spanish Armada by a much smaller force led by Sir Francis Drake.
The final section recounts what is perhaps the most famous act of sedition in English history: The Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and his Catholic co-conspirators planned to blow up Parliament and assassinate Elizabeth's recently crowned successor, James I. In a compelling account of the discovery and eventual disruption of that plot, the thriller writer and historical novelist come seamlessly together.
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.
Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry into the fiction of Peter Straub."
By Ken Follett
Viking. 916 pp. $36