A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
This third installment of Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge series covers the Elizabethan era of England’s history, with its attendant political intrigues, religious persecutions, and assassination plots. While our chief protagonist, Ned Willard, and his family are fictional, famous historical personages inhabit the plot: William Cecil; Mary, Queen of Scots; Francis Walsingham; Francis Drake; and of course Elizabeth Tudor.
Ned Willard goes to court as a young man, after having been disappointed in love, and is promptly taken under the wing of William Cecil, Elizabeth Tudor’s chief advisor. Together they oversee a network of informants and spies, rooting out planned rebellions and foiling attempts on the Queen’s life. The majority of the political story concerns the tension between staunch Catholics and Protestants, each believing they follow the One True Faith; and the accompanying efforts to sway England, France, and Spain toward one religious tradition or the other.
I liked this book. It’s well-written and steeped in historical detail. But I didn’t enjoy it as much as I enjoyed the first of the line (The Pillars of the Earth, set in the 12th century), or even the second (World Without End, set in the 14th century). That may be because I am utterly fascinated by the Middle Ages — far more than with any other period in history — and thus novels set in other historical eras don’t engage me as much. Still, Elizabethan England is a dramatic setting, and the dramatic plotline delivers one punch of excitement after another.
Given that the three books in this series each take place approximately 200 years apart, I venture to guess that the next installment, should there be one, will cover the American Revolution, and will take place in both England and the New World. We’ll see.
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Three of five stars
Some historical novels read like lighting; others trip lightly down their historical paths; still others plod, heavy and weighted with their historical sense and period sensibilities. Sacrilege by S.J. Parris is a plodder.
Giordano Bruno, former monk and current secret agent on behalf of Queen Elizabeth in the London establishment of the French Embassy, is surprised by the reappearance of his former love Sophia. Dressed in rags and disguised as a boy, she is on the run and accused of murdering her husband. She begs Giordano for his assistance: please go to Canterbury, discover who really killed Edward Kingsley, and clear her name. Giordano, still half in love and feeling some guilt over their past, obliges. He sets off for Canterbury, but not without a secondary purpose as assigned by the Queen’s spymaster Francis Walsingham: while there, he should look into rumors of a Catholic plot to unseat the Queen.
Once in Canterbury, and under an assumed identity with the aid of his court connections, Giordano begins his investigation. However, Canterbury harbors more secrets than a possible assassination plot and the identity of Kingsley’s murderer — missing and murdered children, a cultish devotion to the murdered St. Thomas Becket — and and such a questioning presence unsettles someone powerful behind the scenes. When he finds himself arrested and accused of murder himself, Giordano finds he must prove his own innocence as well as Sophia’s.
Parris tells a good story, rich with historic fact and period detail. The pace is steady and the language straightforward. This novel is third in a series, however. It’s a personal quibble, I suppose: this story stood well enough on its own, but given that Sophia’s and Giordano’s relationship had been previously established and explored, I felt I would have been better served and enjoyed the story more had I read the previous novels.
Many thanks to LibraryThing’s Early Readers program for the opportunity to read this book.