Thursday, January 19, 2012

Book Review: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

Fall of Giants (2010) by Ken Follett.

As a young man, Ken Follett wrote the extremely memorable spy novel Eye of the Needle in 1978. He has since gone on to write the highly-praised historical novel Pillars of the Earth and its sequel World Without End.

Follett's writing has grown more ambitious over the years, and now he has written Fall of Giants, a book of nearly 1,000 pages which is only the first of three projected volumes called The Century Trilogy. Fall of Giants follows eight major characters across three continents during the cataclysmic events of World War I, no minor feat. Subsequent volumes will follow the same characters and their descendants through the 20th Century. It seems clear that the second volume will cover the second World War. Perhaps the third volume will be set during the Cold War.

My knowledge of the First World War consists of hazy memories from high school social studies. Follett has done his homework here--he actually uses a research company based in New York--and he's made the earthshaking events of the early 20th Century seem as palpable as today's headlines. It's hard for a contemporary reader to understand how civilized nations could have subjected millions to the carnage of the first World War. Follett deals with this problem rather well. He places his characters close to the key decision-makers, so we can see firsthand how so many nations were led to such a calamitous outcome.

Follett's writing is very simple and direct. I would not characterize it as literary. He goes to great lengths to describe his characters's motivation for every decision and action. The cruelty and deprivation of life under the Czar is depicted so well that the Russian Revolution, when it finally comes, seems totally plausible, even necessary. Slowly, the horrors of life under Lenin emerge as well. This elaborate work of fiction depicts a host of complex historical events from the assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand to the Great Depression in convincing, even compelling, detail. President Wilson, the Kaiser, and Lenin all make their appearances, but they never overshadow the characters we care about.

To be sure, getting so much historical detail in a book with only eight primary characters requires a fair number of contrivances and coincidences. Characters get reassigned from the battlefield to military intelligence and back again, as the story requires. Characters may travel from country to country, but wherever they go they keep running into each other.

As in World Without End, Follett has a fondness for highly intelligent, highly competent young men and women with modern ideals. These are the good guys, the ones who passionately want peace or women's suffrage or safer coal mines, and who we hope will succeed. There are also a number of nationalistic or aristocratic characters wedded to Old World ideals and eager for war to advance their interests. Follett explains their positions, but he doesn't share them.


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