17 November 2023

Review: The Armour of Light by Ken Follett

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett book cover

* Copy courtesy of Pan Macmillan *

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett is a 700+ page novel, but if you're concerned it'll be a slow burn or you'll have to suffer through a slow start, fear not. As always, bestselling author Ken Follett drags the reader into the lives of his characters by the scruff of the neck, whether they've made the commitment to invest the requisite time with him or not.

But this is historical fiction I hear you cry, not a thriller. How does he do that? Well, how's this for an opening line?
"Until that day, Sal Clitheroe had never heard her husband scream." Page 3
Okay, I'm in! The opening line introduces us to Sal Clitheroe and we become immediately invested in her plight and that of her husband and family. It's 1792, the focus soon widens and we begin to meet more characters from a range of backgrounds from the town who will go on to tell this story. Some are friends, some are foes and they all have their faults, but together a relatable history of the period begins to form in the reader's mind.

Set in Kingsbridge, England during the Napoleonic Wars, I'll admit to being surprised at the date we pick up the thread again. I wanted to return to the moment soon after the events of The Evening and the Morning and the naming of Kingsbridge which gave me a very pleasant gasp of recognition that left me wanting more.

That said, The Evening and the Morning was actually the prequel to The Pillars of the Earth, however The Armour of Light is the 5th novel in the series and chronologically follows on more than a century after A Column of Fire*.

In The Armour of Light, we return to Kingsbridge 150 (or so) years after those events and during the industrial revolution.* The characters in Kingsbridge are struggling with the introduction of machinery to the local mills, which causes unrest amongst the workers.

Meanwhile, I learned about press gangs for the first time and didn't know that men could be kidnapped or tricked and captured, later waking up on a ship.
"Britain was in constant need of men for the navy. The militia, the home defence force, had no shortage, for it had the power to conscript men whether they liked it or not. There was no conscription into the regular army, but poverty-stricken Ireland supplied about a third of army recruits and the criminal courts accounted for most of the rest... So the biggest problem was the navy, which kept the seas free for British trade." Page 427
"In England, teams called press gangs kidnapped, or 'impressed', able-bodied men in coastal towns, took them aboard ships, and kept them tied up until they were miles from land. The system was hated, and often led to rioting." Page 427
I don't recall this ever coming up in the historical fiction I've read until now, but I could be mistaken. It seems preposterous, doesn't it? That you could drop into your local tavern for a beer and be kidnapped and forced into service, unable to alert your family or provide for them and this plays out in the book.

As in previous work, Follett's depth of research is supported by excellent writing, with the occasional line that made me smile for the sheer joy of it:
"The two men set off again. Willard House was on the market square. The irritatingly officious Sergeant Beach was on duty in the hall, and after a token display of reluctance he showed them in to Donaldson." Page 552
I love the 'token display of reluctance' and seeing this kind of detailed observation on the page is always an unexpected delight. Other than commencing close to two centuries later than I expected, The Armour of Light by Ken Follett delivered on every other hope and expectation. I came to care about the plight and wellbeing of the millworkers and villagers as well as the success of the town, all while understanding that the challenges faced in the industrial revolution were only going to increase.

Follett is able to distil the events of history and make them relatable through the impact to his characters, and I'm now feeling a little more informed about the Napoleonic wars and can't wait to see the release of Napoleon here in Australia later this month.

The Armour of Light by Ken Follett was my most highly anticipated title for 2023 and I can highly recommend it for readers of historical fiction.

* Here's a look at the Kingsbridge series of books in the order you should read them, and the time periods they cover:
Book #0 The Evening and the Morning 997AD - 1007AD
Book #1 The Pillars of the Earth 1135 - 1174
Book #2 World Without End 1327 - 1361
Book #3 A Column of Fire 1558 - 1606
Book #4 The Armour of Light 1792 - 1824

My Rating:

Would you like to comment?

  1. Nice review, thanks for sharing your thoughts

    1. Thanks Shelleyrae, it'd be great to see some more reviews out for this one.

  2. I made this comment somewhere else (maybe at Staircase Wit) as well. I have never read Ken Follett. It seems to me that he is a bit of a vegemite author. You either love him or you don't, and an author I respect a lot is a not. maybe it is time for me to try for myself!

    Thanks for sharing your review with the Historical Fiction Reading Challenge!

    1. Thanks Marg, I always assumed readers were intimidated by the sheer size of his historical fiction, with those readers not liking him being due to the resentment felt from reading so many pages, not from bad writing. Either way, I hope you decide to give one of his books a chance, your efforts will be rewarded and who knows, you could discover a new favourite author 😃


Thanks for your comment, Carpe Librum!