We need to address the big elephant in the room – we need to talk about Ken Follett. Well, more specifically, about the Kingsbridge trilogy. I was reluctant to write this post, because I’ve never been more disappointed by a read in my life. I was expecting so much, and for good reasons!
I’ll start with a quick flashback, a quote from this article I wrote last year, before all my dreams and hopes were crushed.
“Not only is Ken Follett one of the best writers I have personally come across, but he is also an exquisite historian.
(ALSO, THE SEQUEL IS ABOUT 16TH CENTURY SPIES AND SECRET AGENTS???? SIGN ME UP!!)”
And look at me now, putting on my clown wig and painting my face!
So young, so naïve!
I’ll say it now before I get into the thick: A Column of Fire (that sequel I was talking about) was a hot mess. This, however, didn’t drive me to see the other books in the series differently. I still love them and cherish them and they’ll forever be my babies.
So before I’ll go on a rant rampage about A Column of Fire, here is a brief review of The Pillars of the Earth and A World Without end because you absolutely need to read them.
The Pillars of the Earth and A World Without End
It’s important to note that the books in the series can be read in any order, as each installment takes place in a different time period. However, there are some loose connections when it comes to characters, but it’s nothing more than a fun easter egg, now and then – a subtle nudge to the reader. I actually read them way out of order, but I do suggest starting with Pillars, then moving on to World and, finally, read Column.
Pillars is set in 12th c. England, following the lives and dramas of two noble houses, a destitute builder and his family trying to survive winter and make it out of poverty, and the plotting within the ecclesiastical orders of Kingsbridge, all these against the backdrop of the civil war ensued from the death of King Henry I. The main plot line that beautifully ties together all the narratives is the building of Kingsbridge cathedral.
The story spans four decades, throughout which the reader is completely emerged in the everyday life of Kingsbridge. You come to know the characters inside out and care for them or hate them or both. You cry, you laugh, you grit your teeth or sigh in relief as the plot unfolds, never knowing exactly where it’s going to take you next. The novel is full of mystery, compassion. It’s gripping from its first page and you’ll find yourself completely invested in it.
World Without End is its sequel, set in 14th c. England, in Kingsbridge. The main cast of characters is loosely related by a few generations to the beloved Jack and Aliena and all the others from Pillars. Here, we follow Caris, Merthin, Gwenda, Prior Godwyn and Ralph throughout events that will mark Kingsbridge and the rest of the world forever, from the building of the bridge (which is the main plotline, as the building of the cathedral was in Pillars), to war and even the Black Death.
Needless to say, both books tick the right and exact same boxes for me and are two of my favourite reads of all time.
I love how character-driven they are, as opposed to the typical historical novel which uses its characters as a means to an end, overcast by some big historical event. In these two, you get to see the civil war and, respectively, the war with France, from the perspective of people not directly involved in them. They are secondary to the happenings in Kingsbridge and very subtly woven into the story. It screams “small history” and I love that.
Ken Follett’s writing is easy to read, yet compelling. He builds a complex fresco of the Middle Ages, all complete with masterful descriptions and an extremely thorough understanding of the architecture and mechanics of building at the time. I’m not a historian, so I can’t tell if the story is “realistic’, but it definitely is believable. I’ve read more on the historical accuracy of the novels and the opinions are varying and, frankly, biased.
Another thing to look forward to: the man knows how to write a good villain. So be prepared to literally scream at the book time after time after time. I can’t remember ever hating anyone as much as Prior Godwyn and, most times, I’d even forget he is fictional. I was so invested with the main characters, that Godwyn’s attacks on them felt personal.
Not to mention that there are some kick-ass ladies taking the lead, truly strong characters with agency, which is always a plus.
A Column of Fire
I really tried, I did.
Any reader knows the excitement when they find out that their favourite author wrote another book and the synopsis sounds so damn promising!
I mean… come on… 16th c. espionage at the courts of Elizabeth I and Mary Queen of Scots? This is history buff heaven!
But, right from the beginning, the book felt a bit off. Everything was weirdly rushed and the characters incredibly flat, especially as I was holding it to the standard of the previous two novels.
In fact, the plot was so rushed that I struggled to take anything seriously or care about any of the cast. I’ll give you a few examples, trying as best as I can not to spoil you. Within the span of 3 pages, one of the main guys (1) meets the love of his life, (2) begins a relationship with her and (3) is tragically required to leave her, never to see her again, just for some sentimental depth to an otherwise dry plot line. And I’m supposed to be invested in this, for some reason. Or, on the more comical side (not intended to be comical, mind you): two guys arrive in France and they’re told to be aware of an evil dude within one line of dialogue. Fast forward ONE paragraph: “hello, it’s me [insert evil dude’s name], at your service [*evil smirk*]
I might be nitpicking, but these really rubbed me the wrong way.
Where the prequels took their time to expand a character’s journey and focus on the way from point A to point B, in Column, they seem to be teleporting left and right through Europe. It shrunk down the world, which is a bit ironic considering that Pillars and World discusses the small history of Kingsbridge and, in turn, expands on the vastness of English Middle Ages; but Column, which discusses such a key historical event, shrinks the world to a few cardboard-cut-out dummies who only exist to push the plot forward.
A Column of Fire is to the Kingsbridge series what Season 8 was to Game of Thrones.
Follett’s writing style becomes too accessible, bland and lacking personality. Not to mention that the book is full of modern language and people, too modern for the time period depicted.
However, the research that goes into it is of astronomical proportions, as it is to be expected from a historical fiction veteran like Follett. But in this one, he made it seem too technical, and it didn’t fit in well with the fictional side of the matter.
This 3rd volume is everything I appreciated the first two for not being.
I very rarely give up on books, and I’ve powered through actual literary atrocities. But I had to put this down because reading it was so frustrating, I didn’t want my opinion on Ken Follett’s writing as a whole to change.
If it were a stand-alone, it might have been acceptable and I wouldn’t have complained about it so extensively. But given the stakes raised by its predecessors, the novel was a huge disappointment.
I’ve seen some positive reviews on Goodreads, a few people going as far as to say it’s the best book ever written. So it might still be worth giving a chance. As for me, I’ll be fine, thank you. I’m not even curious about how the story ends.