The Armour of Light by Ken Follett: enthralling and immersive – book review –
In England’s cathedral city of Kingsbridge, workers are uniting and fighting as huge industrial changes sweep across the land, and their epic struggle takes centre stage in the latest chapter of a phenomenal series which has enshrined master storyteller Ken Follett as one of the world’s most popular and talented historical fiction writers.
It’s all part of a jaw-dropping success story that began thirty-four years ago when Follett set aside his thriller writing to lay the foundations of a remarkable historical novel which would become a worldwide phenomenon selling over 27 million copies.
The Pillars of the Earth – a truly magnificent tale about the building of a 12th century cathedral in the fictional town of Kingsbridge – stunned both readers and critics with its rich period detail, extensive architectural research, and brilliant storytelling, and was turned into a major television series, produced by Ridley Scott.
Avid fans had to wait until 2007 for the sequel, World Without End, another voluminous blockbuster which followed the fortunes of Kingsbridge families in the 14th century. Ten years later, Follett weighed in again with A Column of Fire, a magnificent Kingsbridge drama set amidst the tumultuous events of the Tudor period and in 2020 he brought us The Evening and the Morning, a gripping, action-packed prequel set in the dark days of the 10th century.
And now he’s back for a blockbuster ride through a new dawn for Kingsbridge where the Enlightenment has opened eyes, progress clashes with tradition, class struggles disrupt every level of society, the war across the Channel both inspires and terrifies the people of Kingsbridge, and the fight for freedom of speech becomes a cause célèbre.
In England, the government is setting on a course to make the country a mighty commercial empire and in post-revolutionary France, Napoleon begins his ruthless and relentless rise to power.
But all is not well with France’s neighbours. Dissent and suspicion have been growing since the Spinning Jenny was invented in 1770. It has heralded a new era of manufacturing and industry, changing lives everywhere within a generation, and sparking a battle for control over this new world order.
In Leicestershire, Ned Ludd and his followers are destroying the new machines in clandestine mill raids and Kingsbridge, like many other English towns, is on the edge. The established Church, meanwhile, is witnessing the growing influence of the Methodists, industrialisation promises more wealth for the mill owners but the threat of poverty to the workers, and the drums of war are beating across the Channel.
In the large village of Badford, spinner Sal Clitheroe, accompanied by her young son Kit, watches in horror as her agricultural worker husband Harry is fatally crushed under the wheel of a cart through the negligence of the landowner’s arrogant and discontented son Will Riddick.
At the bishop’s palace in nearby Kingsbridge, the Bishop’s only child, 20-year-old Elsie Latimer, a young idealist and intellectual, is nursing her ‘big project.’ Horrified by the long working hours and lack of education for children, she is fighting for funds to launch a Sunday school.
Several people have volunteered to help her, not least the Methodist Amos Barrowfield, a well-intentioned young man and the son of a local cloth maker. When Amos unexpectedly inherits his father’s failing business, he is determined to turn it around despite the malign efforts of mill owner Alderman Hornbeam who is prepared to protect his business and his wealth, no matter what the cost to others.
As institutions are challenged and toppled in unprecedented fashion, and Napoleon bids to be emperor of the world, the feisty Sal, her ally, the canny weaver David Shoveller known as Spade, and Kit, Sal’s son who has grown into a clever, inventive and headstrong man, come to define the struggle of a generation as they reckon with the future and a world that must rebuild from the ashes of war.
Once again, Follett brings us history on a grand scale, using a vibrant cast of disparate characters to play out the economic, social, religious and political events of a period of industrial unrest when rampant modernisation and groundbreaking new machinery were rendering jobs obsolete and tearing families apart.
The Armour of Light is like history on a vast canvas, painting a dynamic portrait of England at a pivotal point of industrialisation as the old ways of working clash dangerously with the beginnings of mechanisation, and the inevitable changes and job losses bring anger, dispute and misery into the lives of workers in Kingsbridge’s prosperous cloth mills.
It’s a path littered with disappointment, passion, cruelty and kindness, and recognisable life events which highlight Follett’s grasp of both history and humans, his ability to weave together fact and fiction, and the power of his knowledge and imagination to bring the past to life in all its vivid, visceral reality.
And as always with this gifted writer, the journey through the early decades of the 19th century is a full-on Follett experience from first page to last... a 735-page tome packed with enthralling players –whether they be good, bad, or of a downright ugly disposition – and encompassing everything from love affairs, births, deaths and marriages to politicking, warfare and revolution.
Written with Follett’s gift for personal and political drama on both the grand and small stages, this is an enthralling, immersive story that flows seamlessly and enjoyably through its hundreds of pages, but be aware… the temptation to revisit and relish the earlier Kingsbridge novels could prove hard to resist!
(Macmillan, hardback, £25)