Late night, Sydney airport, the end of a holiday. Our flight home is delayed, we may not even make it out before the airport curfew. The place is mostly empty, just a couple of gates open, one or two shops. I’ve finished my book and knowing that home is so close, with its teetering ‘to read’ pile, I am loath to buy another novel on Kindle. Meandering through the airport newsagent I see a couple of books on my list – Michelle Obama’s Becoming, for example – but the price is so ridiculously eye-watering that it is not even worth considering. Idly, I notice a small stack of Ken Follett books and very quickly realise to my complete delight that for less than twenty dollars I can have all 891 pages of his latest novel, the third in the Kingsbridge series. Sold.
The world is in turmoil: it is 1558 and Europe is in revolt as religious hatred sweeps the continent. As the births, marriages and deaths of royals on both sides of the English channel have dramatic influences on the lives of every day people, Ned Willard from Kingsbridge is offered an opportunity to participate in bringing in a new world order. It is either that or stay in town to watch the love of his life, Margery Fitzgerald, marry another. Driven to amend the extremism he has witnessed destroying communities and countries, he goes to serve his Queen.
It’s been a long time between drinks with me and Ken Follett. And the same can be said for this collection a well: The Pillars of the Earth was originally published in 1989, with World Without End came in 2007. But it did not take me long at all to return to the familiar and enjoyable pattern of Follett’s writing style and themes. In fact, at first, it seemed a little too easy: his technique for reminding us of characters, drawing connections between generations of families, and dramatic chapter endings all felt a little overused from the outset. While these tropes were present throughout the whole book the focus soon shifted when it became apparent that this was a deeply involved, genuinely gripping story.
Which, considering I know exactly how it is all going to end, is a pretty skilled thing to do. The reading is pacy and absorbing, using small detail to tell bigger stories. And while I may know the grand sweep of history, there is a lot I learned along the way. Follett used 228 books to get the historical facts of A Column of Fire right, not to build it into a history lesson but to make the everyday lived experience of his characters faithful to reality. He cleverly patterns his fictional characters with historical figures, knowing when to use fact and when to use artistic licence to tell a good story.
Follett is a clever man and a brilliant writer. This book is highly enjoyable, very interesting and definitely entertaining. Historical fiction at its best.