The Armour of Light
2023 | Historical Fiction |
The grand master of gripping fiction is back. International No.1 bestseller Ken Follett returns to Kingsbridge with an epic tale of revolution and a cast of unforgettable characters.
Revolution is in the air
1792. A tyrannical government is determined to make England a mighty commercial empire. In France, Napoleon Bonaparte begins his rise to power, and with dissent rife, France’s neighbours are on high alert.
Kingsbridge is on the edge
Unprecedented industrial change sweeps the land, making the lives of the workers in Kingbridge’s prosperous cloth mills a misery. Rampant modernization and dangerous new machinery are rendering jobs obsolete and tearing families apart.
Tyranny is on the horizon
Now, as international conflict nears, a story of a small group of Kingsbridge people – including spinner Sal Clitheroe, weaver David Shoveller and Kit, Sal’s inventive and headstrong son – will come to define the struggle of a generation as they seek enlightenment and fight for a future free from oppression.
“The latest in Follett’s Kingsbridge series takes readers to a time of turbulence. In late-18th- and early-19th-century England, Sally Clitheroe must struggle with personal tragedy in a time of great societal upheaval. After her first husband is crushed under an overloaded turnip cart, she must initially raise her son, Kit, on her own. She is an exceptionally strong woman, both physically and mentally, and is every bit a match for her second husband, Jarge Box. When he strikes his stepson, Jarge learns that he’s made a big mistake: “If you ever touch that boy again,” Sal warns, “I swear I’ll cut your throat in the middle of the night, so help me God.” Not that the young are generally respected; this is still an era when a child can be hanged for stealing 6 shillings worth of ribbon for his mother to resell for bread; when criticizing the government is a crime punishable by prison; and when two or more employees are forbidden by the 1799 Combination Act to criticize their employer. But monumental change is afoot with the beginnings of the Industrial Revolution, and it’s not all good. New spinning looms require fewer people to operate them, throwing many people out of work. Luddites, followers of Ned Ludd, destroy as many of the new machines as they can, but to no avail. Lawbreakers can sometimes avoid prison by joining the army, which ties into the dramatic set piece of this lengthy novel. When Wellington confronts Bonaparte at Waterloo, the carnage is horrific as cannonballs rip bodies to shreds. Sal and her son are central to the story. They are admirable characters without any obvious faults, but the rest of the cast has many: hanging judges, greedy businessmen, thieves, adulterers, murderers, and a bishop’s aide who harbors unseemly ambition. They are all well developed and believable, and readers will love to hate some of them. A treat for fans of historical fiction.”
— Kirkus (starred review)
“The fourth entry in Follett’s Kingsbridge series (after A Column of Fire) is another vibrant survey of British history from the perspective of ordinary people, this time spanning from 1792 to 1824. That scope allows Follett to cover the impact of new technology—the spinning jenny, which worked eight times as fast as the traditional spinning wheel—as well as nascent efforts by the English working class to speak up for their rights. Those developments are made accessible through characters such as Sal Clitheroe, whose husband, Harry, is fatally injured while harvesting the squire of Badford’s turnip crop. His death is caused by the negligence and callousness of the squire’s son, Will Riddick, who was overseeing the harvest, and instigates a cascade of hardships for Sal and her six-year-old son, Kit. When Sal’s request for financial assistance from the area’s Poor Relief Fund is refused, Kit is forced into service in the very home of the man responsible for his father’s death. The Clitheroe family’s thread is deftly interwoven with other storylines, including those of Elsie Latimer, the bishop’s daughter, who seeks to provide free education for the underprivileged, and clothier Amos Barrowfield, who wants to restore the family business to profitability. Follett is equally adept at portraying the horrors of war and his characters’ quiet moments of despair. The result is an impressive and immersive epic.”
— Publishers Weekly
“Follett’s latest Kingsbridge doorstopper, following A Column of Fire (2017), picks up in 1792 and features a large cast. Sal and her son, Kit, are victims of the incompetence and cruelty of Will Riddick, the squire’s son. Sal tries to make ends meet by spinning yarn for struggling clothier Amos. Elsie, daughter of the bishop of Kingsbridge, is perfect for Amos, but he’s blinded by yearning for Jane, a manipulator who’s determined to marry up. Elsie’s mother, Arabella, begins a torrid affair with weaver Spade, Amos’ friend. The avaricious alderman, Hornbeam, overshadows all, thwarting Amos and Spade. All occurs against the backdrop of social unrest occasioned by revolutionary ideas from America and France, the Napoleonic Wars, and industrialization that offers opportunity while threatening the livelihood of many. Modern parallels are drawn with technological advances, polarized politics, inflation, and rioting. Follett’s fans can look forward to his straightforward prose style and simple explanations of historical events and concepts. This epic canvas holds a mélange of relationships which all work out exactly as they should while Follett brings Kingsbridge up to the Regency era.”
“Ken Follett’s Kingsbridge novels, a sprawling chronicle of the life and times in a fictional English town, have sold millions. With the arrival of “The Armor of Light,” the fifth volume in the series, the saga now spans more than 800 years and extends to well over 4,000 pages of suspense and high drama presented in plain, down-to-earth prose. The books are peopled by characters of every stripe — villains, victims, avengers, innovators, commercial geniuses, and highborn men and women finding love and ungovernable passion in the lower orders. Aside from being thumping good yarns in the grand old style, each volume opens the door on a pivotal period in English history and is rich in material and technical description, not least about the mysteries of structural engineering.
“The first, and still the most famous in the series, “The Pillars of the Earth” (1989), is set in the 12th century during “the Anarchy,” a period of political chaos and violence that accompanied the struggle for succession to the English throne, the poisonous effects of which are felt even in Kingsbridge. “World Without End” (2007) jumps ahead to the 14th century and embroils itself in the turmoil arising out of the 100 Years War and the Black Death. “A Column of Fire” (2017) moves on to the 16th century and the gore-spattered reigns of (Bloody) Mary I and Elizabeth I, on to the reign of James I and the thwarting of the Gunpowder Plot. Follett then stepped back six centuries to the turn of the 10th century in “The Evening and the Morning” (2020), as Anglo-Saxon England is beset by Viking raids and the future Kingsbridge is still the muddy little town of Dreng’s Ferry.
“Now, with “The Armor of Light,” we find ourselves in Kingsbridge and its surrounds in 1792, the year that marks the beginning of the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic wars. At the same time, steady advances in industrial mechanization are fast laying waste to traditional ways of life. In Kingsbridge, a center of woolen textile production, work is moving from the homes of hand carders, spinners and weavers to mills equipped with vastly more productive machinery. Combined with the inflationary effect of the wars and the government’s crackdown on “sedition” — usefully construed by the propertied classes as associations of working people — survival for workers has become a very grim business.
“The story opens in a field belonging to the squire of Badford, a village lying outside of Kingsbridge. Men are digging turnips under the brutal supervision of Will Riddick, the arrogant, wastrel son of the squire. Impatient and reckless as usual, Riddick causes a cart to be overloaded and a man, Harry Clitheroe, is crushed beneath it and dies after hours of agony. If you think young Riddick will accept responsibility and offer proper restitution to the man’s family, you don’t know Ken Follett, a virtuoso of portraying injustice. Instead of reparation, Harry’s wife, Sue, receives a pittance and her 6-year-old son, Kit, is ordered to work in the manor house. It doesn’t take long for the boy to run afoul of Will and he ends up kicked in the head by Will’s skittish horse and nearly dies. In time, Kit’s mother, Sue, a powerfully built woman, appears on the scene and floors the detestable Will with a right haymaker. As punishment, she is banished from the village, moves to Kingsbridge and, happily enough, secures a job working a spinning engine in a new, up-to-date factory owned by one Amos Barrowfield, a rare decent industrialist.
“Amos is himself a survivor of the vile machinations of another of Follett’s bad actors, the grasping, merciless Alderman Hornbeam, who had hoped to take over Amos’s late father’s woolen-cloth business by calling in a large loan. And thereby lies another tale culminating in villainy foiled. Be that as it may, Amos is far from content, eating his heart out over the beautiful, but ambitious Jane Midwinter, who has set her sights on bigger prey. Meanwhile, Elsie Latimer, daughter of the bishop and his wife, Arabella, is pining over Amos — while Arabella entertains a forbidden desire for a weaver. In the past, Kingsbridge simply throbs with passion, requited and otherwise.
“This is to mention the longings and doings of only a few of the many characters who populate this industrious book. The story plunges on into the 19th century, presenting technical innovation, battle action on the Continent, labor unrest in Kingsbridge met by the newly passed Combination Act outlawing worker organizations or meetings or just about anything that could be so construed. Follett’s sympathies are very much with the workers; nonetheless, he and history give them a rough time, delivering long hours and pay cuts, a hanging, a gruesome flogging, time in the stocks, imprisonment and transportation to Australia.
“The story is propelled by acts of highhanded cruelty answered by the resourcefulness and pluck of its victims, a dynamic so predictable that we know that, in most cases, it’s only a matter of time before good triumphs and comeuppance is delivered — whereupon the cycle repeats itself. Yes, we’re being manipulated, but we can’t stop turning the pages: What now? What next? Beyond that, however, it is Follett’s generosity and adeptness with historical detail and nimble depictions of technical matters that set this book, like its predecessors, above mere historical melodrama.”
— The Washington Post