Challies Challenge Category: Novel
A Column of Fire by Ken Follett
My rating: 3 of 5 stars
I had high hopes for this one, because I loved Pillars of the Earth and World Without End so much. But this one was just okay. Other reviews have pointed out how the scope of this one was harder to get into– rather than staying in Kingsbridge, or even with people who have a connection to Kingsbridge, this one went literally all over the world. Characters were introduced that had very little to do with the overall plot. And I agree with the reviewer who pointed out that in historical fiction, the made up characters should never have such a pivotal role in actual events. But when the fictional characters are the primary instigators in actual conspiracies, and other fictional characters are the primary heroes in foiling said conspiracies, then everything just gets muddy.
But here’s what I think left me cold on this one, in comparison to Pillars of the Earth and World Without End: no one built anything. In Pillars, Kingsbridge Cathedral became a character in and of itself. In World Without End, Carris’s quest to reform the way medicine was practiced was so compelling, and the hospital, and Merthin’s bridge, and the revolutions in engineering and philosophy that marked the end of the Middle Ages and the dawn of the Renaissance (not to mention the Bubonic Plague) gave you a sense of history being told in microcosm.
Not so with Column of Fire. I thought Carlos and Ebrima’s iron-smelting forge was going to be that thing. Or maybe there was going to be a genius ship designer who would help turn the tide for the English in the defeat of the Spanish Armada. But no. None of that happened.
If you read Follet’s introduction to the anniversary edition of Pillars, you understand that the book came out of a fascination with the cathedral builders– how they wanted to start something they knew they would not live to complete, but would pass their skills to the next generation. He had visited these cathedrals that took decades to build, and imagined all the stories that could be told of the builders. As a result, Pillars felt like a work fueled by the fascination of its author. In disappointing contrast, “Column” feels like it was fueled by fans wanting more Kingsbridge stories. Not a bad motivation for an author, I guess, but it just didn’t seem like his heart was in it.