Review: A Column of Fire

The third in the Kingsbridge series see another 200 years pass in the fictitious town of Kingsbridge to the 16th century (Pillars of the Earth was 12th century and World Without End was 14th century). Each of the three books in the series is a self-contained epic that can be read separately and not necessarily in order. There is some reference in this third book to protagonists in the first two books, but only as famous town characters e.g. Merthin’s Bridge, Caris’s Hospital, Prior Philip’s grave. That and the town of Kingsbridge is the extent of the connection between the three books.

The protagonists in this book are Ned Willard, a mild protestant and merchant’s son, Margery Fitzgerald the mayor’s daughter and Ned’s love interest who is a staunch catholic, Sylvie Palot a staunch protestant and the third part of Ned’s love triangle. The antagonists are Rollo, Margery’s brother and a fanatical catholic and Pierre Aumande a ruthless politician and another fanatical catholic. All the other characters are supportive and there are some cameos from true characters of the time.

Elizabethan England is on a fragile tightrope of religious tolerance between the catholic and protestant faiths. The population changes faith according to the preference of the king or queen ruling them and the people are scared to be caught worshiping the wrong faith. Neither extremist side is happy with the compromise of religious tolerance and there are burnings, massacres and plotting a plenty from sabotaging protestant traders businesses in town, planned massacres, to plots to overthrow and assassinate the queen.

As Ned and Margery are on opposite sides of the religious divide, their love is doomed from the start. But as with Merthin and Caris in World Without End, this is a lifelong love they have despite their differences and obvious obstacles. Ned has to watch Margery being forced to marry for the social position of her family and in his despair he leaves Kingsbridge and goes to Hatfield to join the upcoming queen-to-be court of Elizabeth’s at Hatfield and falls into working for William Cecil and later Francis Walsingham the spymaster, as his deputy. His work as a spymaster leads him to Paris where England’s ultra-Catholics seek support from the catholic city and the Guise family who are the staunchest of the catholic ruling class. That’s where Ned meets his counterpart Pierre Aumande who is a fabulously nasty character, low born bastard of a bustard and embarrassed about it, with a chip on his shoulder and aspirations of grandeur and ambitions to be the chief advisor to the Guise family who are the second family of France after the royal family and desperate to grab the throne for themselves or at the very least be the power behind the throne. Mary Queen of Scots makes an early appearance in the book as does Sylvie whose family own a bookshop as a façade for their real work of passing banned protestant books to their congregation.

Unlike the first two books, this book is international with chapters in Paris, Antwerp, Seville, Caribbean, London and Kingsbridge. Slavery and piracy are introduced in the book to add to the melting pot of troubles and questionable morals and ethics of the time and the book also refers to the first pilgrim boat to America at the end.

The book is gripping and I’d advice not having long breaks of too many days between readings as there is a large cast of characters and many parallel story lines in this complex plot. The author has conveniently put the list of character names at the beginning and back of the book for reference. I read the book in about nine days (750 pages).

I’m not sure whether the Kingsbridge series will remain a trilogy or whether there will be another book two hundred years later in the 18th century, perhaps covering the French Revolution and maybe even a new town, New Kingsbridge in America, with naturally more pirates and maybe witch trials?


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