A Column of Fire

By Ken Follett

Viking. 916 pp. $36. nolead ends

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Reviewed by Bill Sheehan

nolead ends More than 25 years after Ken Follett's The Pillars of the Earth (1989), he returns with a new volume in the Kingsbridge series. A Column of Fire is set in Elizabethan England. It ranges well beyond Kingsbridge into the wider world of a divided Europe, propelling a large cast of characters through England, Scotland, France, Spain, and the Netherlands. The first two volumes dealt with ambitious building projects - the cathedral in Pillars of the Earth, a bridge and hospital in World Without End - but the new book proceeds from a more abstract premise: the radical notion of religious tolerance.

Follett's characters make their way through a landscape of religious upheaval. Two families, the Willards and the Fitzgeralds, dominate the novel. Other characters include Sylvie Palot, a Parisian Protestant and a clandestine seller of forbidden books; Pierre Aumande, an ambitious climber willing to commit any atrocity to appease his Catholic masters; and Rollo, who will devote his life to the destruction of the Protestant faith.

Follett moves these characters briskly through 50 eventful years of births, deaths, marriages, murders, and assorted betrayals. But the real spine of the narrative is the deeply researched historical backdrop against which these private dramas play out. With a historian's eye for detail and a novelist's gift for suspense, Follett takes full advantage of history's spectacular moments, recreating events such as the St. Bartholomew Day Massacre; the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots; and the defeat of the Spanish Armada.

The final section recounts the Gunpowder Plot of 1605, in which Guy Fawkes and his Catholic coconspirators planned to blow up Parliament and assassinate Elizabeth's recently crowned successor, James I. In a compelling account of the thwarting of that plot, thriller writer and historical novelist come seamlessly together.

Like its predecessors in the Kingsbridge series, A Column of Fire is absorbing, painlessly educational, and a great deal of fun. Follett uses the tools of popular fiction to great effect, illuminating a nation's gradual progress toward modernity. The central theme here - the conflict between tolerance and fanaticism - lends both relevance and resonance to the slowly unfolding story of England's past. In Follett's hands, that story takes on a narrative life that is difficult, if not impossible, to resist. I hope it continues. There are many more stories to be told.

Bill Sheehan is the author of "At the Foot of the Story Tree: An Inquiry Into the Fiction of Peter Straub." This review originally appeared in the Washington Post.