The year is 1976, and the Headless Horseman rides again!
Steve Wagner is an ordinary Ohio teenager in the year of America’s Bicentennial, 1976.
As that summer begins, his thoughts are mostly about girls, finishing high school, and driving his 1968 Pontiac Bonneville.
But this will be no ordinary summer. Steve sees evidence of supernatural activity in the area near his home: mysterious hoof prints and missing persons reports, and unusual, violently inclined men with British accents.
There is a also a hideous woman—the vengeful ghost of a condemned Loyalist spy—who appears in the doorway of Steve’s bedroom.
Filled with angry spirits, historical figures, and the Headless Horseman of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Revolutionary Ghosts is a terrifying coming-of-age story with a groovy 1970s vibe.
I’ve been adding pages of my dark fantasy/horror serial, Revolutionary Ghosts to the site more or less every day. (I did miss a few days during the holidays.)
The online version of the text represents a rough draft (with a brief editing pass for flagrant typos). This version of the book will remain online.
Before Revolutionary Ghosts is published, though (in formats that I’ll be actually charging money for), it will undergo additional editing and proofreading passes.
The basic plot of the story won’t change during the editing phases; but the descriptions may be enhanced, the character dialogue will be tweaked, etc.
Awkward sentence structures (inevitable in any first draft) will be eliminated. I’ll also make sure all the typos are nailed down. (I’m sure a few have slipped by me in the online version.)
E-book, audiobook, and paperback editions of Revolutionary Ghosts will eventually be available–not only from Amazon, but also from Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and Google Play.
You are welcome to read the full text here. (That’s one of the options I had in mind when I decided to post it online, after all.)
You might alternatively choose to merely sample it here, and await the fully edited, finalized versions in the stores. (They won’t be expensive. Don’t hold me to this: But the ebook version will probably retail at $3.99.)
I plan to have retail versions of the book available no later than March 1st.
How you read Revolutionary Ghosts is up to you. In any case, I hope you enjoy the story.
It’s that time of year again. The time of setting New Year’s resolutions—or not.
Since I belong to a gym, I approach January 1st with mixed feelings. On January 2nd, I know that my gym will be overrun with hordes of new members. They will fill the parking lot, take up locker space, and wander aimlessly around the exercise floor, as they struggle to master the nuances of the pec fly machine and the StairMaster.
The New Year’s resolutions members, we call them. Roughly half of them will be gone by Valentine’s Day. By the Ides of March, two-thirds will have fallen by the wayside. By Tax Day, they will be a shadow herd, less than ten percent of their original number.
This is, to a major extent, how fitness facilities make their money: They sell scores of memberships that go unused after a few months. The owners of every gym know that the year-end, that time of New Year’s resolutions, is the prime time for such sales. Because so many people make New Year’s resolutions that they quickly abandon.
This raises a natural question: Are New Year’s resolutions even worthwhile? Or should we go into the default mode of post-modern cynicism, and assume that New Year’s resolutions, too, aren’t what they’re cracked up to be?…Another residual cliché of a bygone age.
Yes, New Year’s resolutions do have a notoriously high failure rate. And yes, the New Year’s resolution has become something of a cliché. I’m going to submit to you, however, that the New Year’s resolution is still a very worthwhile undertaking.
Consider the significance of January 1 as a juncture for clearing the decks, hitting the reset button, starting over.
The first day of January is a completely arbitrary date, from a scientific, mathematical perspective. Theoretically, you could start afresh on any day of the year. Why not March 10th? Or May Day? Or Thanksgiving?
(I’ve occasionally tried to start afresh on my birthday. This hasn’t worked well at all—at least partly because my birthday falls in the humdrum, dog days of August.)
The entire world has earmarked January 1 as a new beginning. The way we designate time subtly changes, as the year is altered by a single digit. The New Year is hyped in the media, and practically everywhere else.
I’m often a cantankerous contrarian. But even I know when to go with the flow. Even though you could theoretically start afresh on any given day of the year, there is a great deal of cultural momentum behind New Year’s Day. Why not use it in your favor?
New Year’s Day, in fact, has a semi-spiritual status in some Asian cultures. The Japanese celebration of Christmas is purely secular (Christians are a small minority in Japan); and the Japanese don’t recognize Hanukkah at all. But the New Year bears a special significance within the animist beliefs of Japan’s native Shintoism.
In Japanese corporate settings, there is the bonen-kai, or “forget the year party”. Held in late December, these are occasions for putting the previous year firmly in the past, so as to facilitate a fresh start in the New Year. New Year’s Day in Japan is a time for visiting friends and loved ones—much like Christmas Day in the West.
Speaking of corporate settings: Even though many companies end their fiscal years on October 31st or July 31st for accounting purposes, most use the New Year as a time to rally employees, suppliers, and customers for a new set of goals. Why not do the same, at an individual level?
New Year’s resolutions become more important as we grow older. Children, teens, and very young adults rarely set New Year’s resolutions, and with good reason. Their lives are already focused on change and transformation.
When you are in school, after all, there is a natural progression built into the transition from one grade—and from one major level of education—to the next. Your life is going to change whether you want it to or not. The process is going to kick you forward.
The setting of new goals, likewise, is built into the process. Many of these goals are predetermined. You don’t really have a choice about the goal of moving from the fifth grade into the sixth, or graduating from high school.
As an eighteen year-old high school graduate, you’ve got to do something next. If you’ve been blessed with caring parents and other conscientious adult authority figures, you’ll have no shortage of advice. But either way, you can’t remain in high school. The only way to go is forward…toward something.
After we become entrenched in the adult world, however, that systemic forward progression no longer pushes us along. In its place arises an inertia that encourages us to fall into ruts. The external trappings of this year might not vary much from those of the previous year, or the year before that. Change is quite often something that has to be initiated from within, versus accommodated from without.
And this is how we get “stuck”—in any number of ways.
I recognized signs of this pitfall in my own life in the mid-1990s, as I passed the midpoint of my twenties. I was five years removed from college, and about ten years removed from high school. I was just another working adult, and I could already sense myself falling into ruts.
So in 1995, I began two new habits.
The first of these was the setting of annual, quarterly, and monthly goals. I set goals in all areas of my life: financial, physical, social, professional, and “skills” (areas of knowledge that I wanted to improve or acquire).
I also began keeping a daily record of my activities. Nineteen ninety-five was still a largely analog world, so I used a paper-based system: I acquired a “business diary”, and used this for my daily records: accomplishments, setbacks, challenges met and overcome, memorable events, etc. Nothing fancy or too elaborate. Just something to give me a bird’s-eye view of the year the following December, when it would be time to set the next year’s goals.
I’ve been following this practice for twenty-four years now. I still have my 1995 diary, as well as my diaries for all the years in between. It’s interesting to see how my goals and priorities have changed since the Clinton era.
I’m naturally nostalgic (most conservatives are); but you don’t have to be obsessed with your personal auld lang syne in order to benefit from such a system. It is as focused on the future as it is on the past.
And the pivotal day of that system is New Year’s Day, January 1st, when I set aside one diary and open a blank one.
All those pages—twelve months of time.
A lot can happen in a year. A lot can be accomplished in a year. That is as true for me today, at age fifty, as it was on January 1, 1995, when I was twenty-six. But at age fifty, I probably rely more on this tangible reminder of what the New Year means.
That word tangible is important, by the way. I would encourage you to record your annual plans (and results) in a written, paper format.
I know: iPhones and Word files and “the cloud”. Fiddlesticks. Holding a year in your hand, in a single bound document, makes that year more psychologically substantial. This will be true on both January 1st and December 31st. And it’s definitely true later on, when you’re looking back on long-past years. Use a physical diary to both plan and record your personal year.
Back to the gym. I know that the bulk of the New Year’s resolution members will come and go by March 15, because I’ve seen them come and go so many years in the past.
Likewise, I have fallen short on many of my New Year’s goals. So will you—unless you set goals that are unambitious (and therefore, uninspiring).
That said, the past twenty-four years have taught me that my New Year’s planning has a direct and proportional impact on the success of each subsequent year. This is why I maintain the practice, and probably always will, until the day when my New Years are no more.
I am a big fan of The Sell More Books Show, hosted by Jim Kukral and Bryan Cohen. Whether you’re an indie or a traditionally published author, this is a great place to get a weekly update on the latest trends in publishing and book marketing.
One of the topics in this week’s episode was the devastation that streaming services have wrought on the music industry, and what that might presage for writers and publishers.
This segment of the show begins with a reference to several online social media postsand articlesabout the financial situation of musician Danny Michel.
Although Michel’s music is popular, he isn’t even earning beer money through the streaming services:
I’ve been a full-time musician for 25 years. It’s been nothing but hard work, but I love hard work. My songs bought my house, my studio, pay the bills and more. Through it all the conversations backstage with other musicians have always been about music, family, guitars, friends, art etc. But in 2018 that conversation changed. Everywhere I go musicians are quietly talking about one thing: how to survive. And I’ve never worried about it myself UNTIL 2018. What I can tell you is my album sales have held steady for the last decade until dropping by 95% this year due to music streaming services. Note my earnings for “Purgatory Cove”: this song has been in the TOP 20 charts (CBC Radio 2 & 3) for 10 weeks, climbed to #3. In 2018 that equals $44.99 in sales. (An artist earns $0.003 per play on Spotify)
Michel and other musicians who complain about Spotify (and similar services) are correct: The entire concept is a lousy deal. The streaming services arose as a cynical compromise with music piracy. No one in the music industry–from record label executives to the back-up drummer for the latest up-and-coming garage band–thought that this was a good idea.
But twenty years ago, too many musicians were afraid to say that music piracy wasn’t cool, wasn’t okay. Musicians at the time (circa 1999) were afraid of alienating the first generation to come of age with the Internet.
Members of that generation are now in their late thirties, and are no longer in the prime music-buying demographic, anyway. But as a result of the prevailing attitudes of that time, musicians are stuck with the streaming paradigm–at least for now.
In his commentary on the Sell More Books Show, Jim Kukral suggests that Dan Michel is just whining, that musicians should simply “suck it up”.
Why? Because digital robbery is the wave of the future? With all due respect to Jim Kukral, I wonder if he would be so glib if Russian hackers were to penetrate his personal savings account. After all, you can’t fight the future.
Obviously, I don’t want to see Jim Kukral’s bank accounts get hacked by Russians. But to some people, Russian hackers helping themselves to your money via hacking is just part of the future.
No version of the future is “inevitable”. The future is always open to debate and influence.
I’m not a musician, so I don’t have a dog in the streaming music battle. But if I were a musician with any control over my content, I would remove my entire catalogue from Spotify, Pandora, and all similar venues of online digital servitude.
Then I’d release my music as a CD. In fact, I might even release my music in vinyl, which produces a better listening experience, anyway, and is presently making a comeback among fans.
But what about the vast audience on Spotify? you might ask. I would submit that an audience from which the #2 song makes less than $50 in a year isn’t worth much.
How should we extrapolate all this to the publishing business? Authors are worried about the Spotify-ing of publishing, too. As Bryan Cohen (back to The Sell More Books Show) pointed out in his commentary, Kindle Select/Kindle Unlimited is an incremental payment system–just like Spotify.
At present, participation in the Kindle Select program is voluntary; but suppose Amazon required it in the future? Further suppose that we eventually had a situation in which authors were getting paid $0.12 per each complete read, or something like that.
Then Jim Kukral laid out yet another really dire scenario–a bit more far-fetched, but by no means impossible. Suppose some hacker in China or Russia creates a device or app that allows anyone to read all the digital books presently on Amazon–for free?
Either of these dire outcomes would completely destroy the publishing industry, and prevent anyone from making any kind of a living writing books.
But I don’t think we have to worry about it too much.
Why? Because digital books (ebooks, Kindle books) are not inevitable.
If we ever reached a state in which ebooks went to $0, due either to widespread piracy or some version of “Spotify for books”, publishers would simply stop publishing ebooks.
Yes, that could happen.
Publishers are still selling hardcover and paperback books today, in 2018, after all. (And as Jim Kukral has noted in previous episodes of The Sell More Book Show, paperbacks are making a comeback with young readers in their teens.)
Some indie authors are so desperate to be read, at all costs, that they probably would agree to a “Spotify for books”; but there is no way that Michael Connelly, Stephen King, Nora Roberts, and the companies that publish them are going to agree to such an arrangement. Why would they? Bestselling indie authors wouldn’t agree to that, either.
For further evidence that “the wave of the future” is always subject to debate and revision, note the widespread resistance to Kindle Select. Amazon launched the service in December 2011. But it hasn’t become “the wave of the future”. The New York publishers immediately said, “No thanks”. And seven years later, you still can’t read the latest Lee Child or James Patterson novel in Kindle Unlimited.
Many indie authors are also saying no to Kindle Unlimited. (Joanna Penn and Dean Wesley Smith have both been prescient in detailing the drawbacks to the program.)
The music industry was completely vulnerable to piracy (and the subsequent forced acquiescence to streaming) because in 1999–the year of Napster–everyone believed that vinyl was dead. At the time, all music was being sold in easily pirated CDs.
The publishing industry is not in a similar state. A few years ago it was considered trendy and futuristic to say that “paper books are a thing of the past”. But those dead tree books are proving to be rather persistent. (I’m reading the latest Michael Connelly novel in hardcover right now, in fact.)
Be careful about declaring any new setup “the wave of the future”, just because a particular group of people has embraced it–often for self-serving purposes.
As an artist or creative type, you should be immediately skeptical of any “wave of the future” which has the net result of preventing you from making any money whatsoever from what you do.
Nor should you be overly concerned about “alienating” those who insist that you must work for free–or almost free. Let that audience go elsewhere.
Finally, who are the real “whiners”? Are the musicians who complain about making less than $50 per year from a #2 hit “whiners”?
Or are the whiners those listeners who claim that $9.99 (the price of a few coffees at Starbucks) is a simply unacceptable price for an album, because in their preferred version of the future, all music is free?
I’ll just come out and admit it: I can’t get enough of the Cold War. Part of this is nostalgia, of course. I make no secret of the fact that I consider the culture of the latter half of the 20th century to be far superior to what the 21st century has produced so far. And if you lived in the United States, the Cold War was the dominant geopolitical reality of the late 20th century.
Or maybe I’m fascinated with that old enemy, the Ruskies. Islamic terrorists I simply want to see annihilated. Kill ’em all, and let Allah sort ’em out. But the Russians are intelligent and innovative enough to be interesting, even if they aren’t always likable and almost never trustworthy.
My Cold War fascination undoubtedly played a role in my enthusiasm for The Americans, the Cold War spy drama that ran on FX from 2013 to 2018. I suppose, too, that I was a naturally receptive audience for Red Sparrow(2018) , a movie about a Russian ex-ballarina who is recruited into “sparrow school”, where the comely are trained to be ruthless, to use their sexuality in the service of the Russian state.
Note that I said “Russian” and not “Soviet”. Red Sparrow is set in the Putin era. Russia’s new leader-for-life isn’t directly portrayed in the film, but he is constantly referred to as “the president” (the same disingenuous title used for Saddam Hussein during his long, dictatorial reign in Iraq).
The Russia depicted in Red Sparrow is appropriately cold, snowy, grim, and brutal. Within the first ten minutes of the movie, you will be tempted to turn up your house’s thermostat. You’ll also be thankful that you live in the United States (or in some other Western democracy)–and not there.
(Another personal aside here: My grandfather spent a year in the USSR during WWII. His U.S. Navy duties also took him to Syria, Egypt, and a host of other places that most Americans wouldn’t eagerly visit in 2018. The only place he described in negative terms was Russia. As he put it, “the asshole of the world”. Not only did he hate the weather, but the Soviet soldiers were uniformly unfriendly, and ordinary citizens were afraid to even look at Americans, lest they be accused of treason. But to be fair, this was during the Stalin era.)
Jennifer Lawrence stars in Red Sparrow as Dominika Egorova, a Russian ballerina who supports her mother on her dancing income, until her career is ended by an injury. Dominika is then approached by her uncle, Ivan, who heads the Russian SVR. Ivan has a job for her.
I don’t want to summarize the whole plot for you. But suffice it to say that Ivan is creepy and evil. He also has incestuous designs on his niece. Through a series of carefully orchestrated circumstances, Ivan closes off Dominika’s options until her only real choice is to dedicate her life (and her body) to the service of the Russian state.
There’s much more to the movie, of course; and the real fun begins when Dominika starts interacting with her American CIA adversary, Nate Nash (played by Joel Edgerton). Nash and Dominika have an affair. (Of course: If a Cold War-era spy movie has a pretty female Russian operative and a CIA male agent, they must have a sexual liaison.)
Speaking of sex: There is a lot of it in Red Sparrow. In this case, however, it really is integral to the plot, as Dominika has been trained to use sex as a weapon of espionage.
A word about Jennifer Lawrence. Jennifer Lawrence is one of those Hollywood types with whom I have a love-hate relationship. On one hand, she is a complete idiot when she opens her mouth about political matters–something she’s been doing increasingly in recent years.
On the other hand, she is a brilliant actress. I became aware of her years ago, when I saw one of her first movies, Winter’s Bone. In that movie, Lawrence convincingly became an impoverished Missouri teenager. She is just as convincing as a Russian ex-ballerina-turned-secret-agent. You don’t have to like Jennifer Lawrence’s off-screen behavior (and I for one, don’t), but you have to admire her mastery of her craft. (Now–if she would only just stick to that craft, and spare us the moonbat political activism.)
Dominika is understandably bitter about her mistreatment at the hands of her uncle and her native country. She is therefore ripe to be turned by Nash, who recruits her as a double agent. But has Dominika truly turned? The viewer can’t be sure. As the plot of Red Sparrow evolves, you aren’t sure if you’re watching a movie about doomed Russian patriotism, an espionage double-cross tale, or a classic revenge story. It’s worth the two hours and twenty minutes it takes to watch Red Sparrow in order to find out.
A quick book recommendation for you, based on my current and recent reading….
I decided to take a chance on Nora Roberts’ recent novel, The One.
I say, “take a chance,” because while I’ve been aware of Nora Roberts for years (she’s been publishing since the 1970s), I’ve always considered her to be something of a romance author.
Straight men and romance fiction. You know how that goes. Oil and water.
The Onecertainly has more romance content than this reviewer would like. But this isn’t a Danielle Steele novel. From the perspective of a male reader who generally prefers writers like Michael Connelly and the late Michael Crichton, The Oneisn’t half bad.
This is the set-up: A plague (a particularly virulent version of the avian flu that so terrified everyone a decade ago) sweeps the earth and kills most of the population.
Some people are immune, of course. (Otherwise, there is no story.) Those who are immune have dormant magical powers, that are awakened in the aftermath of the catastrophe.
The One, then, is part post-apocalyptic, part urban fantasy, and (yes) part romance fiction.
On the whole: not bad.
Did this novel convert me into a raving Nora Roberts fan?
No. But then again, I’m not in Nora Roberts’s target audience, am I?
After The One, might I read another Nora Roberts title in the future?
Perhaps. It would probably depend on how intrigued I am with the description and opening chapters.
No one moves to Ohio for the weather. It is only mid-November, and we’re already having honest-to-goodness-oh-man-this-sucks genuine winter weather, as pictured below.
If you look closely at the photo above, you can see the icy coating on the tree branches, and on the floorboards of my deck.
Or perhaps not. In any case, take my word for it. This morning we had .30″ of ice in the form of freezing rain. Just enough to make driving a pain in the neck.
Also enough to cause power outages. My power was out from 3:30 am until a little after 4. (Duke Energy, as public utilities go, is reasonably efficient at restoring services when they’re interrupted for any reason.
Bad weather days are good days for writing, however (provided the power stays on). I’ll be spending much of today working on the manuscript for REVOLUTIONARY GHOSTS. I hope to have it done by the end of this month.
If you’ve been watching CBS in recent years, you’ll have noticed that many of the network’s top programs are reboots of shows from the 1970s and 1980s: MacGyver, S.W.A.T., Hawaii Five-O.
Now you can add a new one to the list: Magnum PI.
I’ll admit: I was a skeptic. The 1980s coincided with my high school and college years. I didn’t watch much television during that decade. But I did make time for Magnum PI. The original Magnum, starring Tom Selleck, is one of my favorite television programs from my youth.
I was sure that CBS would make a mess of the remake.
I was wrong. The new Magnum PI is just as fun and entertaining as the original.
I’m a conservative, and all conservatives are naturally nostalgic. We tend to believe that things were better in the old days, that previous versions of things were better than the new and updated ones. In this vein, there was a part of me that would have loved to have seen Tom Selleck star in the 21st-century reboot of Magnum. (Selleck presently stars in Blue Bloods, another CBS staple, as the patriarch of an NYPD family.)
But another part of me knows that would have been ridiculous. Tom Selleck is very fit for his age, but he’s now in his seventies. The starring role in Magnum PI is one for an actor in early middle age: 35 to 45.
CBS has cast Jay Hernandez as Thomas Sullivan Magnum. And while Hernandez brings his own style and interpretation to the role, he pulls it off with as much flair as Selleck did before him.
The new show more or less ports the characters and the basic premise over from the original: with some necessary changes. In the original show, Magnum and his sidekicks (TC and Rick), were Vietnam War vets. In the 2018 reboot, they’re veterans of the wars in the Middle East.
There is one fairly major character change: In the 1980s version, Higgins, the majordomo of the Hawaiian estate where Magnum lives (off the largess of the never seen Robin Masters) was played by British actor John Hillerman. In the reboot, Higgins is still British, but Higgins is a woman (Perdita Weeks).
Conservatives like me are supposed to hate it when rebooted shows arbitrarily change the genders of characters. I don’t necessarily hate this practice in a knee-jerk sort of way, but I’m always skeptical of it, often with good reason. (The reimagining of Boomer and Starbuck as female characters in the rebooted Battlestar Galactica produced uneven results.) But in the case of Magnum PI, the distaff version of Higgins works perfectly. I think–sorry, Mr. Hillerman–that I even like the Perdita Weeks interpretation of Higgins better.
The show includes lots of fun details that were crucial to the 1980s Magnum, like the dogs Zeus and Apollo, and Magnum’s habit of thinking aloud to the audience. TC and Rick (Stephen Hill and Zachary Knighton) don’t get much character development. But then, they were little more than affable sidekicks in the original version.
The Magnum PI reboot is as good as any purist could have asked for, 38 years after the start of the original series (and 30 years after it went off the air).
Sometimes the networks botch things, but sometimes they hit home runs, too. The new Magnum PI is a home run
David Gaughran is a constant source of valuable information for anyone publishing in this brave new world of indie publishing. One of his recent blog posts concerns the Amazon “also-bought” apocalypse.
If you’re a writer/indie publisher, the post is well worth reading in its entirety.
But here’s my quick take on the matter:
For years now, thousands of indie authors have made themselves wholly dependent on the Amazon ecosystem. This trend has accelerated nonstop since Amazon established the KDP Select/Kindle Unlimited program in 2011.
At least one of the indie author “gurus” now states that indie authors no longer need individual author websites.
Why? Because the only thing that matters now is gaming the Amazon algorithms!
Many indie authors no longer think in terms of any kind of “platform” beyond Amazon.
Rapid release into KDP Select….
Rapid release into KDP Select…
Rinse and repeat…
I’m not anti-Amazon. (I rather like them, in fact.) But as David Gaughran’s post illustrates, it is dangerous to build a consumer-focused business that is solely reliant on a single channel of distribution.
What is the solution? Forget about silly “boycotts” and online petitions. Those things don’t mean squat, at the end of the day.
The solution is to spread the risks: Go wide, and work with other retailers–in addition to Amazon: Apple Books, Kobo, Smashwords, etc.
Let me make clear: Amazon is not evil. But Amazon is a large company that will, like all big companies, act in its best interests.
How do you think Amazon got to be the world’s largest retailer?
If you’re an independent author, you need to act in your best interests, too.
And acting in your best interests doesn’t mean relying solely and entirely on Amazon.
The novel opens in 1558, just as the reign of the Catholic Queen Mary is coming to an end. Mary has reversed England’s Protestant shift, which began when her father, Henry VIII, decided that he couldn’t make due with one wife and a mistress.
Mary, who is also known to history as “Bloody Mary”, occasionally burned Protestant dissenters, and this is depicted in one of the opening chapters of A Column of Fire. Hence the name of the book.
This is the opening historical backdrop. The hero of the novel is Ned Willard, who is a young man in love as the story opens. The object of Ned’s affections is Margery Fitzgerald. Ned’s affections are returned, but—of course—there is a problem.
Margery hails from a devoutly Catholic family that has prospered under the reign of Mary. Through the connivances of Margery’s fanatically papist brother, Ned loses Margery to Bart, a member of the local Catholic nobility.
And so Margery enters into a loveless marriage with Bart (who is an uncouth, insensitive, and blundering brute), while Ned goes off, forlorn, to seek his fortune in London.
Ned is a lukewarm Protestant who abhors the intolerance of Mary’s reign. Ned longs for a monarch who will allow the British people to worship freely (or as freely as possible, according to 16th-century standards of “freedom”.)
Just as Ned is reeling from the loss of Margery, Mary dies. Elizabeth takes the throne. A chance connection to Sir Francis Walsingham (principal secretary to Elizabeth) enables Ned to enter the service of the Crown. Ned is greatly impressed with the young queen. With the option of a married life with Margery closed off, Ned devotes himself to the service of Queen Elizabeth I, and the implementation of her (initially) tolerant ideals.
There is a lot more to A Column of Fire, of course. This is a 900-page book, after all. There is also a storyline set in France, where Protestants are a minority in an officially Catholic country. Still another set of characters has adventures in Spain and the New World. (All of the storylines converge before the end of the book.)
The overarching theme of A Column of Fire is the religious strife that gripped Europe in the aftermath of the Protestant Reformation. As noted above, the story opens with anti-Protestant burnings in England. Follett later weaves into his plot the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre in Paris, and the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. The book covers around half a century. (Ned Willard is in his eighties in the final chapter.)
I loved this book. I have read almost everything that Ken Follett has written to this point, and A Column of Fire is hands-down my favorite.
I like stories with complex twists and turns, and physical threats; and A Column of Fire has all that in spades. There are sea battles, and opposing rings of Catholic and Protestant spies.
The majority of readers seem to agree with me. A Column of Fire is highly rated both on Amazon and Goodreads.
But even a really good book has its flaws. Most of the criticisms of A Column of Fire come from one of two angles, which I’ll address briefly.
Ken Follett seems to harbor a secret desire to be an author of Harlequin romance novels. Almost every movie, novel, and television series has a love interest (or multiple love interests), and I’m not suggesting that this, in itself, is in any way a drawback.
Follett, however, tends to go overboard on his sex scenes.
Now, before you ask, I’m no prude. I’m a fifty-year-old, very heterosexual man with right-leaning libertarian tendencies. I have an equal loathing for leftwing political correctness, and anything that smacks of goody-two-shoes censorship.
That said, there is only so much detail that I need when an author describes a romantic coupling. To be blunt about it: Once the author has described the male protagonist’s erect penis, or the heroine’s moist nether regions, the author has given me more detail than I actually need.
Follett does this on multiple occasions (and in more than a few of his novels). There are some lacunae that an author should trust readers to fill in for themselves.
Secondly, A Column of Fire has something of an anti-Catholic bias. Almost every Catholic character is portrayed as a bloodthirsty fanatic, an amoral schemer, or a deluded simpleton.
(This may be a thing with baby boomer British authors who write historical fiction, as I’ve noticed a similar tendency in the historical novels of Bernard Cornwell.)
These flaws, however, are minor ones. On balance, A Column of Fire is a great read.
A final word before I end: You’ll appreciate A Column of Fire far more if you already have a basic knowledge of European history in general, and the Protestant Reformation in particular. But then, if you don’t already have some interest in history, then it’s unlikely that you’ll be strongly attracted to this book.
I remember being nine years old in the summer of 1977, sitting with my dad in the cinema, watching that first epic Star Wars opening crawl.
I became a total fanatic for Star Wars. And yes, that meant Star Wars action figures, Star Wars trading cards, and much else. During that first two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, I wasn’t thinking about stagflation or the energy crisis, or Jimmy Carter’s “malaise”. I was thinking about Star Wars.
Among my favorite Star Wars memorabilia of that era were the four Star Wars posters issued by Burger Chef. (Burger Chef was a once popular fast food chain that went out of business in 1996.)
I had all four posters, and they were hung all around my bedroom. (I can still recall the exact placement of each one, in fact.)
These are now collectors’ items, of course. But they were just delightful children’s bric-a-brac in 1977.
Star Wars replica posters you can buy on Amazon:
The original Burger Chef posters from 1977. (I can vouch for their authenticity, because I was there!)