The long-standing and extraordinarily patient among you who have been reading my essays in the area of arts and literature will probably recall I had occasion to bring two spectacular novels by Ken Follett to your attention. One was The Pillars of the Earth , and the other was World Without End . Both are eminently worthy of the time it will take you to read books of around 1,000 pages each. The same is true for Fall of Giants.
Like World Without End, this latest novel is set in a momentous and very troubled era: the years encompassing the First World War, including both its inception and its aftermath. Naturally, the greater part of the story centers on the war (and the resulting Russian revolution), but the tale is far from over as of November 11, 1918.
Also, in keeping with Follett’s earlier output-including the spy stories-this one is a work of historical fiction. As a result, you will find people such as Woodrow Wilson, V.I. Lenin and Winston Churchill blended in with the fictional characters, whose lives dominate the story.
Very much unlike the two novels I referred to above, this one is not confined to England for most of the story, but, rather, takes us to Russia, Germany, America and France as well. After all, it does center on a world war. What I admired about this story, besides its being so very well-written, is that Follett does not attempt to take sides in the geopolitical upheavals that take place within it. Just as there are good Russians and bad Russians, good Germans and bad Germans, there are good and bad among the British and the Americans, when it comes to the fictional characters Follett creates to populate his novel.
Even though the main characters come from disparate parts of the western world, there are superficial details that serve logically to bring them into contact with one another. For example, the Welsh Williams family that is one focal point of the story, work in a mine owned by Earl Fitzherbert, who is socially friendly with the von Ulrich family, posted to England as part of the German diplomatic mission. Fitzhugh’s wife, called Bea, but formally Princess Elizaveta, is of the Russian aristocracy. There are a number of these logical connections, some of which result in, if not entirely illogical, then highly impractical romances.
One of the small criticisms I have about the story is that the main characters are a little too intertwined, meaning that they run into one another more than they logically should or than they need to in order to significantly advance the plot. Another mild criticism I have is that many of the characters seem just a little too prescient about events to come when the world around them is a welter of confusion. That element notwithstanding, the couple most directly affected by the event draw an absolutely wrong conclusion about the suppression of the Hitler-Ludendorff Putsch in 1923.
Unlike the two earlier novels set in Medieval England, death is not such a frequent visitor to the major characters. While the Reaper’s harvest was little short of appalling in the two earlier books, most of the best-known characters in Fall of Giants somehow survive all the calamities around them. They do so, not because Follett is getting soft in his old age, but because he has further plans for them. You see, this story is not done with the last page of the book. It is but the first novel in a trilogy Follett has called The Century. To this date, the books to follow are possibly no more than drafts.
That said, not all of the featured characters emerge with their lives from the first book of the trilogy. Although, over the course of the entire story in a Ken Follett tale, most people get their just desserts, inasmuch as this is a beginning, rather than an ending, you will not see so much of that in the novel. Death, when it comes, is arbitrary and capricious, as is good fortune. For example, we meet, early on, two particularly brutal members of the Czar’s Imperial police. Throughout the course of this novel, one of them will meet the terrible and violent death you would probably wish on him by that point, while the other will prosper and become yet even more dangerous and brutal.
The most important thing I can say about Fall of Giants is that it is very, very, very well-written. You will have a hard time putting this book down, so maybe you should wait until you have some staycation time coming.
Amidst all of the gripping narrative, the passage that left the biggest impression on me was one I referred to obliquely in an earlier content call about My Favorite Passages from the Bible . It is the one I mentioned from the Book of John, and, in the context of Follett’s novel, it simply blew me away. You will need to exercise the patience to read the pages leading up to that moment, but, as I have clearly indicated by this time, I hope, reading any part of this story is no chore at all. And I am quite sure that, once you start in on it, you will never want to settle for only part of it.
Even if you are among the 90% of Americans under the age of 44 who read no book at all for recreation in 2007, you should make Fall of Giants the one you read.
Fall of Giants, Ken Follett