Cover image of "The Armour of Light," the fifth book in a bestselling historical fiction series

Estimated reading time: 7 minutes

Many readers know Ken Follett as the author of the popular spy thrillers Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca. But in his long writing career he has sold nearly 200 million books. And the Kingsbridge Saga accounts for more than half the total. It is without question one of, if not the bestselling historical fiction series ever written. And now, more than thirty years after the first volume appeared in print, he has released The Armor of Light.

The Kingsbridge Saga begins around the year 1000. Now, with the latest entry in the series, Follett carries the story forward into the early years of the Industrial Revolution. Action in the book spans the last decade of the 18th century and the first decades of the 19th. And, like its predecessors, the book is a joy to read.

800 years of English history

The Kingsbridge Saga began as a trilogy with the publication of The Pillars of Earth (1989), World Without End (2007), and A Column of Fire (2017). But in 2020 Follett published a prequel, The Evening and the Morning. Later, he added a fifth book, A Column of Fire. And now, three years later, comes The Armor of Light. This latest entry brings the total page count for the six-book series for the Kindle to a staggering 4,362.

In the prequel, recurring Viking raids upend life in the village of Kingsbridge. Then, in the first two books, construction of the cathedral begins, reaching completion in the third as the village becomes a town. In the latest book, Kingsbridge has become a thriving cloth-manufacturing city. There, as elsewhere in England, the first stirrings of labor activism rise against the introduction of the new, steam-driven looms. Meanwhile, the country is at war with revolutionary France, and that 23-year war hangs like a pall over English society.

A Washington Post review of the books describes them as “as comprehensive an account of the building of a civilization—with its laws, structures, customs, and beliefs—as you are likely to encounter anywhere in popular fiction.” But these are not dry history books full of grand abstractions and scholarly asides. They’re stories told in flesh and blood, about individual people who live their lives against the backdrop of forces they’re powerless to control.

The Armor of Light (Kingsbridge Saga #5) by Ken Follett (2023) 750 pages ★★★★☆

Photo of Canterbury Cathedral, like that in fictional Kingsbridge in this bestselling historical fiction series
Canterbury Cathedral, pictured here, is a little larger than the fictional Kingsbridge Cathedral at the heart of this series of novels but is otherwise similar. Even as the town has grown into a textile manufacturing center by the turn of the 19th century in The Armor of Light, its cathedral still anchors the town. Image: Antony J. McCallum – Wikipedia

A cross-section of English society

Like the preceding four volumes, The Armor of Light affords us a view of the class structure in England as it has evolved. The aristocracy. The gentry. Prosperous merchants. Laborers in the mills. Tenant farmers. The Anglican Bishop and Methodist preachers. But most of the principal characters are cloth merchants, reflecting the city’s dependence on the trade. One, the wealthiest of all, was orphaned at an early age but fought and clawed his way to riches. And most are, like him, conservative businessmen (and one woman). But one among their number is what we today would call a progressive, questioning the deprivations of the status quo. An earl and a family of landed gentry nominally rule them all. But it is the leading merchants who wield the power that dominates the day-to-day lives of Kingsbridge’s people.

Photo of a Jacquard loom, a device that plays a role in this bestselling historical fiction series
A Jacquard loom in a Scottish museum. This programmable loom represented high tech in the early years of the Industrial Revolution. And it plays an important role in the fifth volume of this bestselling historical fiction series. Image: National Museums Scotland

Men rule throughout this bestselling historical fiction series

In English society as the Industrial Revolution gets underway, men still rule. But the novel features two strong women who play instrumental roles in the story. A widowed peasant woman now a laborer in the city, Sal Clitheroe will become an organizer of a nascent trade union. And the Bishop’s wife defies him to take on a lover. Women are still subservient to men and legally at their mercy. But among a few there are stirrings of sentiment that women might even someday vote as only a tiny handful of men then did.

Meanwhile, war with France rages on. First, with the despised and feared revolutionaries who beheaded their king and queen. Then, more fiercely still, with the Grand Armée of the Corsican interloper who seized the crown for himself. There are battle scenes aplenty, as some of the men of Kingsbridge are forced into service. And Follett treats us to a blow-by-blow account of the Battle of Waterloo, where Napoleon finally met his comeuppance.

The Armor of Light brings to life all the drama of the two wrenching changes upending European society as the 18th century turned into the 19th. Together, the Industrial Revolution and the French Revolution began the destruction of the old order and the slow, halting emergence of the more egalitarian society we know today.

About the author

Photo of Ken Follett, author of this bestselling historical fiction series
Ken Follett in 2023. Image: Olivier Favre – author’s website

The bio on his website reads as follows: “Ken Follett is one of the world’s most successful authors. Over 188 million copies of the 36 books he has written have been sold in over 80 countries and in 40 languages.

“Born on June 5th, 1949 in Cardiff, Wales, the son of a tax inspector, Ken was educated at state schools and went on to graduate from University College, London, with an Honours degree in Philosophy—later to be made a Fellow of the College in 1995.

“He started his career as a reporter, first with his hometown newspaper the South Wales Echo and then with the London Evening News. Subsequently, he worked for a small London publishing house, Everest Books, eventually becoming Deputy Managing Director.

“Ken’s first major success came with the publication of Eye of the Needle in 1978. A World War II thriller set in England, this book earned him the 1979 Edgar Award for Best Novel from the Mystery Writers of America. It remains one of Ken’s most popular books.

“In 1989, Ken’s epic novel about the building of a medieval cathedral, The Pillars of the Earth, was published. It reached number one on best-seller lists everywhere and was turned into a major television series produced by Ridley Scott.” There have been four subsequent novels to date in the Kingsbridge Saga.

I’ve read all the books to date in the Kingsbridge Trilogy, including the prequel, The Evening and the Morning (Ken Follett sets up the Kingsbridge Trilogy in a prequel). But I’ve also reviewed the fourth book in the series, A Column of Fire (Ken Follett’s 16th-century Kingsbridge saga: Christians killing Christians), and the fifth, The Armor of Light (The Kingsbridge Saga moves to the Industrial Revolution).

I’ve also reviewed the author’s best-known spy thriller, Eye of the Needle (The 40th anniversary edition of Ken Follett’s classic WWII spy novel) and three others:

You’ll find somewhat similar books by other authors at 25 most enlightening historical novels and Top 10 great popular novels.

And you can always find my most popular reviews, and the most recent ones, on the Home Page.