I think it was Stephen King who once compared historical novels to automobile journeys. He said that whether you rode in a Gore Vidal Rolls Royce (Lincoln, 1876, Empire) or a John Jakes Oldsmobile (the North and South saga), both cars took you on a journey through history and, in the process, helped you learn something of another time and place.
Well, I find Vidal’s historical novels erudite to the point of unreadability; story comes second to research and the reader is left struggling through swamps of intellectual observations. I’ll take the Oldsmobile any day. And Ken Follett’s The Pillars of the Earth and World Without End are two of the best.
A Column of Fire picks up 200 years after World Without End and looks set to be as much a page-turner as its predecessors. The characters are memorable, the settings vivid. The atmosphere of religious intolerance and persecution in both England and France is powerfully evoked. (The description of 1572’s St Bartholomew Day Massacre is genuinely frightening.) But in the last 150 pages or so, the book sags. Even though it’s been building to the Spanish Armada – a truly momentous event in English history – the battle itself takes up just one chapter and then just… ends. There’s no mention of Elizabeth 1’s speech at Tilbury, of the storms that destroyed what was left of the Spanish fleet after the battle, or of how disease later ravaged the surviving English sailors. It’s neither vivid nor memorable. As is the remainder of the book, which trundles dutifully along, wrapping up storylines until it reaches the discovery of Guy Fawkes, another momentous event for English religious tolerance that manages to be as unexciting as the description of the Armada.
Of course, if you’re a Follet fan you’ll disregard all of the above and read it anyway. And you should; for at least three quarters of the way it’s a good read. A really good read. Just a shame that it peters out so…