Historical fiction author Ken Follett has launched perhaps the most compelling literary challenge of his long and successful career with the much heralded publication of FALL OF GIANTS. This monumental trilogy will cover most of the 20th century, with the first book arriving at a whopping 985-page, action-packed saga of five families embroiled in the captivating events from 1911 through 1925.
"The page count may seem daunting, but...he has chiseled his narrative to a fine point, and the pages fly."
These fateful 15 years will set the stage for the events that spawned the First World War and the tumultuous century to follow. Royal leaders continued to lose their feudal grip on nations around the world as the Russian Revolution erupted, turning the once western-friendly nation into an enemy by the end of the war that engulfed Western Europe.
In Wales, Billy Williams’s 30th birthday is celebrated by descending into the coal mines, following in the footsteps of his father and grandfather. His elder sister, Ethel, is in service as a maid to Earl Fitzherbert, owner of the mines, and his wife, Princess Beatrice of Russia and his single sister, Lady Maud. Maud, a prominent London socialite, is active in the women’s suffrage movement and romantically involved with Walter von Ulrich, a member of the German consulate in London. Gus Dewar is a wealthy young American who is an aide to President Woodrow Wilson and moves in the same London social circles with the Fitzherberts and von Ulrich.
On the other side of the world, brothers Lev and Grigori Peshkov, Russian orphans who grew up on the streets of Moscow, plan to seek their fortunes in America. As Europe moves inexorably toward war, their paths part in ways that will find them continents apart, with one playing an important role in the Bolshevik Revolution and the other becoming an American gangster.
The violent events of the first quarter of the 20th century are brought vividly to life through these five families. Follett, who has several blockbuster historical novels to his credit --- including PILLARS OF THE EARTH, which is currently running on television as a mini-series --- rounds out the characters so well that you are caught up in their lives from the first chapter. The page count may seem daunting, but unlike many novels by other well-known authors who are justifiably guilty of running overlong and wordy, he has chiseled his narrative to a fine point, and the pages fly.
One pitfall for historical novelists can be a question of accuracy and imagined conversations between the fictional characters and real historical figures. Follett himself answers that question by saying, “When real people have conversations with my fictional characters, they are usually saying things they really did say at some point.” His meticulous research of the published papers of Winston Churchill, Lloyd George, Woodrow Wilson and other prominent political figures, for instance, assures the persnickety reader that if the character was in another place or situation at the time, he leaves it out.
Probably the strongest point of the book is to bring to light why the First World War happened and why the Bolsheviks won the Russian Revolution. The seeming incomprehensibility of these two cataclysmic events that brought down four of the major aristocratic empires of Europe is brought to life through Follett’s carefully drawn characters. The humiliating terms of the peace agreement that was forced on the Germans is offered not as an apology or softening on Germany’s responsibility for their autocratic and inexcusable actions in World War I, but as an insight into how they helped lead up to the destabilization of Germany and the beginning of World War II.
FALL OF GIANTS comes to a close with the advent of Prohibition and Women’s Suffrage, stopping just short of the next world-changing events: the Wall Street Crash and the Great Depression. While Follett doesn’t write the book with a cliffhanger ending, one can’t help but wonder how our intrepid heroes and their progeny who have already survived the worst of what the first quarter-century had to throw at them will now fare. Follett plans to produce the second volume in 2012. Write quickly, Mr. Follett --- your audience awaits.
Reviewed by Roz Shea on January 21, 2011