on November 23, 2011
Years ago I read a few of Ken Follett's thrillers: Lie Down With Lions comes to mind. I think I also read Key To Rebecca and Man From St Petersburg. Honestly, they were fun reads but none of them got under my skin like Pillars of the Earth released in 1989. Or eighteen long years later, World Without End.
I suppose Follett is best known for his thrillers. Goodness knows he's written twenty-odd. But it's his historical fiction I love. As far as I'm concerned the guy is a genius of the genre.
I don't know where Follett falls in literary circles. My guess is his work wouldn't be considered 'Literature' with a capital "L". Who cares? When it comes to storytelling, the man is pure gold.
His most recent work is Fall of Giants, Book One of the Century Trilogy. And the only negative thing I can say about it is I have to wait until the Fall of 2012 for the next installment, Winter of the World.
Fall of Giants is a giant of a book. Just shy of 1000 pages, it's a veritable door stopper. Despite its length, I read it faster than books a third of its size for the simple reason I couldn't put it down. It is the kind of read that you happily lug around so you can snag a few extra pages here and there. By the same token, I was sad when it ended. Now that's a good book!
A Brief Synopsis
The story begins just prior to the commencement of WWI. It follows the lives of several families from various areas of the globe: America, England & Scotland, Wales, France, Germany & Austria and Russia. Follett's characters, fictional as well as real, were so vivid I was invested in all of them, their families and their communities. So when WWI unfolds I was right there, experiencing that monumental war with them. That's the thing about historical fiction, it brings the event,as well as the people, to life.
Of course a novel like Fall of Giants doesn't replace scholarly study of WWI but it is an overview. And as such, it offers examples of how people from the various areas were affected and how the war was a catalyst for other events and political movements. And for this purpose, Follett's facts are well-researched.
Within the first pages of Fall of Giants, there's a map of Europe, circa 1914 and a Cast of Characters that went on for several pages. This did cause me pause. Don't let it put you off. I never once had to refer to the characters' names or relationship to one another. That's because Follett is also a master of logic. At his hand, the entwined stories make perfect sense.
The story ends after the Great War, leaving Follett's pen perfectly poised to take flight with Winter of the World.
My Final Word
If you appreciate historical fiction and books you can get lost in, you'll love Fall of Giants!
on November 6, 2010
When Ken Follett was asked why he chose to write FALL OF GIANTS, the first novel in his planned CENTURY trilogy, the intersecting history of five families beginning in the early years of the twentieth century, he responded:
"The 20th century is the most dramatic and violent period in the history of the human race. We killed more people in the 20th century than in any previous century, in the trenches of World War I, in the Soviet Union under Stalin, in Germany under the Nazis, Spain under Franco. There was World War II and the bombing of Dresden by the British and Hiroshima and Nagasaki. It was a horrible century and yet it is also the century of liberty."
"Very few countries were democratic before the First World War. In Britain in 1900, fewer than a quarter of the adult population had the vote. None of the women had the vote in any of these countries, so that's 50 per cent of the people who weren't allowed to take part in democracy. And the franchise was gradually extended to working class men, so democracy really only had a toehold in the world in 1900. Now we take it for granted, certainly in all the countries we think are "civilized." And that's a big contrast with what we did in terms of killing each other."
FALL OF GIANTS, by telling the engaging stories of the lives of these five families, also tells the story of Europe and its politics as so many nations stumbled foolishly into World War I; as many countries extended the franchise to a small fraction of women and working class men; as Russia toppled their monarchy and moved towards an equally repressive Communist dictatorship after the Bolshevik Revolution; as the USA unilaterally assumed the role of the world's policeman and spearheaded the development of The League of Nations; and as a minor German radical, in the teeth of a crippling imposed peace settlement, implemented the National Socialist party beginning the steady march to a second global conflagration even as many European nations swore, "Never again"!
Some reviewers have criticized Follett's characters as being flat stereotypes. For my money, I saw them as exceptionally well-developed metaphors for broad classes of people that, for one reason or another, would have experienced World War I differently and would have seen the politics and the results of the war from dramatically different perspectives.
Billy Williams, to draw only one example from Follett's heavily populated dramatis personae, was an apt representative of England's working class man who, prior to the war, was a coal miner subject to the brutal and self-centered whims of capitalist mine owners. Despite a quick mind and keen wit, he was once again subject during the war to the orders of officers who frequently seemed to lack even a modicum of common sense as to the prosecution of an offensive against Germany. Finally, as the franchise was at long last extended to working men, he served as the illustrative example of the rise of the Labour Party as it came to power in England immediately after the war.
It is through this type of metaphorical character that Follett has achieved nothing less than a compelling re-telling of the history of Europe through the first 25 years of the twentieth century! It is not often that I can say that a 1000 page monster has managed to keep me glued to the pages from first to last but FALL OF GIANTS certainly managed it. The depth of understanding of the progress of world history that Follett conveys by looking at events through the eyes of such an enormously varied spectrum of characters can hardly be overstated. English speaking secondary schools around the world might do themselves and their students a favour by considering this as mandatory reading for their history curricula.
Highly recommended ... and now I sit and wait for the second instalment in the trilogy! Sigh!
Ken Follett's new novel, "Fall of Giants", is a big boy. It's so big that it could be used as a door stop for a steel door. But I have a feeling that most people reading this review already know it's a big book and don't expect anything less from Ken Follett.
"Giants" is the first in a trilogy about the 20th century. At least I assume it is, because this book is about the run-up to the "Great War" (WW1) and the four years of war. Follett, as usual, has many characters from Europe and the United States. Most are fictional but some are real. He has the talent to draw these many fictional characters with a deft brush, nuanced-enough to be distinguishable from each other. That's no mean feat, actually; how many novels have you read whose characters just blend into each other and you're never sure about who's who? To help out, though, Follett puts a "character page" in the front of the book.
I can't decide if the reader has to have fundamental knowledge of WW1 to appreciate this book. Follett is a pretty good amateur historian and he's written an excellent "historical novel". So, I guess it would appeal to, and help teach, readers of any kind. I thought the same thing about his novels about medieval England.
Follett follows the fortunes and fates of roughly 10 main characters. All intersect to a certain extent - thwarted lovers, Welsh miners-from-Russia, and diplomats-trying-to-prevent-war - in Follett's pages. I'm looking forward to Follett's next two books in the trilogy to learn what happens to these people as the 20th century unfolds. He's a good writer, as most anyone reading this book would probably agree.
on September 6, 2013
With some interest, I downloaded Ken Follet’s Fall of Giants to my Kindle, and added Winter of the World to my Wish List. Having read Herman Wouk’s masterwork on the Second World War (The Winds of War, and War and Remembrance) several times, I was looking forward to Follet’s perspective. But I was disappointed.
On the positive side, the writer manages the tricky business attending historical fiction quite well. He drops fictional characters down into historical events and has them interact with actual historical individuals, without manipulating history, or creating cardboard characters that merely seem part of the scenery. The plotting of the various strands of his story is fine–though at certain points I found the long stretches of grisly battle scenes tiresome.
There was also a monotonous sameness to the sentence structure, a tendency to give us subject...verb, subject...verb, without variation. Starting a sentence with a participle (as here) was rare. I expected that level of expertise when I used to mark college papers, but it was a surprise coming from an experienced author.
Also Mr. Follet seems to have a prurient obsession with sex. I guess it sells books, but it was a turn-off for me. Every few pages (it seemed) we had a coupling, or reference to some kind of sexual activity. His men act at times like a teen-aged males with raging hormones and little sense of morality. And I noticed something. His description of illicit acts of fornication tended to be much more vivid and exciting than when he was describing sexual intimacy within marriage.
As far as I’m concerned, we’re given much more physical detail in these scenes than is necessary. Mr. Follet should take a look at Herman Wouk’s depiction of the love-making of Byron and Natalie Henry at the end of chapter 37 in The Winds of War. Two paragraphs of sheer poetry, without telling us too much. It conveys a sense of the sacredness of the moment that is lacking, over and over, in Fall of Giants.
I don’t know how many times the author uses the “F” word, but it must amount to dozens and dozens. Do some people talk that way? Yes, sure they do. But it’s unnecessary to quote them in sentence after sentence. A sense of what’s happening can be conveyed without that. “He responded with a blood-curdling oath” says it, without saying it!
I plodded on through the book, hoping things might improve, but I finally gave up three-quarters of the way through. I also removed the second book of the trilogy from my wish list. Disappointing.
"Like a cloak You will fold them up,
And they will be changed.
But You are the same,
And Your years will not fail." -- Hebrews 1:12 (NKJV)
Isn't it interesting that on the day I wrote this review, the hardcover book retailed for quite a bit less on Amazon than the Kindle version? Who would have thought that could be possible for a book that's almost 1,000 pages long?
As a youngster, I was fascinated by the CBS televised history series, "You Are There," which was narrated by Walter Cronkite. These re-enactments of critical moments made history interesting and understandable to me in a delightful way that helped turn me into a history major in college. I'm deeply grateful for the experience.
I was fascinated to see that Fall of Giants was designed to take a similar approach, while adding the desirable qualities of multiple narrators with different perspectives, much interaction among the characters, and a family saga element that provides even more depth of understanding. Even though I am quite familiar with the histories that are related here, I found myself wondering what historical lessons would be added to the comments made by the "future-looking" characters who often serve as quasi-prophets in the stories. A lot of historians must have worked very hard to be sure that so many historical insights made it into this novel. Fall of Giants has a surface accuracy that's quite impressive. I suspect that a lot of people will learn more about 1911 through 1923 in the UK, Russia, Germany, and the United States from this book than from any history courses that have taken or might take in the future.
When I saw the list of characters, I couldn't for the life of me imagine how they might relate to one another across cultures. The nicest surprises in the book came from the many unexpected little events that Mr. Follett used to bring his characters together and to draw them apart. I couldn't wait to get to the end to see what inventions he would use.
The book emphasizes the story lines of:
aristocracy losing to meritocracy
integrity being better than popularity and wealth
new ideas replacing tradition
duty versus responsibility
women seeking more equal opportunities
male egos being harmful to everyone else
Watch out that you don't read any detailed descriptions of how the characters' stories develop. You will lose a lot of the joy of the book should that occur.
I like books where the main characters have many chances to make decisions, to express themselves, and to deal with adversity. From the combination, I can get to know and understand them much better. Fall of Giants really delivers in that way for characters such as Gus Dewar, Earl Fitzherbert, Lady Maud Fitzherbert, Walter von Ulrich, Grigori Peshkov, Ethel Williams, and Billy Williams.
I am excited that there are two more books in the trilogy to come. I'm ready!
Bravo, Mr. Follett!
on January 13, 2011
Typical Follett. He is one of my favorite authors and one of the most versatile popular writers. I have a degree in history and have read about WW1 extensively. Follett provides a good story while providing excellent insight into the war, the causes of the war and the beginnings of the Bolshevik revolution. If you are not familiar with these topics this book wiill provide much insight into the stupidity of the war and the necessity of the Bolshevik revolution. Follett provides insight into some of the major historical characters of the time and provides fictional characters strong enough to keep the narrative going. On the negative he relies too much on coincidence - characters running into each other in diverse locations at critical times - for my liking, but I guess that's fiction. I also find Follett's view to be eurocentric. He virtually ignores the contributions made by Canada and other British Empire nations. I've read all of Follett's books and look forward to the rest of the trilogy.
on October 10, 2012
I have long been a fan of Ken Follett, who usually writes brilliantly. But this time? Well, I agree with the other reviews I have just read that gave Follett only one star. I am not a professional historian (although I am a professor emeritus of Russian Language and Literature) but why would Follett change well-known historical facts?
I mention only two. The cruiser that fired on the Winter Palace in 1917, bringing about the Bolshevik Revolution, was not the Amur but the Avrora, which is still moored across the River Neva today--it can be visited. And Germany's surrender to the allies took place not in the Palace of Versailles, but in a railway carriage--which the Germans later used again, as a piece of deliberate humiliation, for the Allies' surrender in 1918.
I was looking forward to these two well-known events in history. The fact that Follett changed them leads me to wonder how accurate his other historical descriptions are.
This is a huge book but it has a big story to tell. Follett creates characters that readers care about and want to know. When the book ended, I wanted more. Even though I was past the 900 page mark. History informs Folletts writing but never overwhelms it. Often history is so strong that fictional stories stretch thin over the realities of the time. That never happens with Follett. His stories are so complexly woven that they drape easily over the historical topography of the first world war. In the end you understand the time better though fiction than you ever did through education. That's a feat!
on September 18, 2014
This historical fiction tells the story of 5 families in different parts of the world: Wales, England, Russia, America and Germany. It takes place before, during and right after World War I. Ethel and Billy Williams are siblings in the poor mining town of Aberowen, and they want to make a better life for themselves. Earl and Maud Fitzherbert are brother and sister in the English aristocracy but they don’t agree on politics. Grigori and Lev Peshkov are brothers in Russia who have been traumatized by their parents’ death at the hands of the regime of the tsar. Gus Dewar works for the US President Woodrow Wilson, and he travels extensively to Europe and Russia. Walter von Ulrich is a German intelligence officer who is against the war. In spite of their disparities, the characters’ lives are all interconnected. However, they will each experience the war differently, and it will change all of them.
At the beginning of the book, Earl Fitzherbert’s estate in Wales reminded me of the TV series Downtown Abbey, all the more so because the story was taking place in the same time period. Since I am a big fan of the series, and I have been waiting impatiently for season 5 to start, it completely drew me to the story. Fall of Giants is a compelling and well-constructed saga covering World War I, the Russian Revolution and the fight for women’s suffrage in Great Britain. Ken Follett has conducted an impressive amount of research for this book, and I learned a lot about the history of WWI. There was a bit too much politics for my taste though but I understand that this was necessary to explain how the Great War came about. However, the book was thought-provoking and suspenseful, and the multiple story lines allowed the reader to see the war from different points of view. I especially liked the strong female characters who were trying to change their lot amid all this turmoil. The size of the book may seem a bit daunting to some readers but the 922-page volume is so gripping that they will be surprised at how fast they read it.
Fall of Giants is the first book in the Century Trilogy, and I can’t wait to read the other two volumes in the series.
Please go to my blog, Cecile Sune - Bookobsessed, if you would like to read more reviews or discover fun facts about books and authors.
When a long book is also good, it is a delight. In contrast, a long book that slowly turns from indifferent to bad is a chore. Sadly, FALL OF GIANTS is one of those books.
Ken Follett, instead of coming up with three new ideas decided to stretch the plot of a single book into three, thousand-page, parts of a Trilogy. And it is painfully apparent. The story could had easily fit into a third of the pages and it would had been tighter and much easier to follow. A thousand pages novel which received little work and even less craft is too much.
And yet, for all its length the book never gives but a very epidermal and caricaturish study of its characters. You get to follow the honorable yet rigid aristocrat and his temperamental Russian-princess of a wife; the rich suffragette and the poor, single-mother activist; the level headed German gentleman and the his homosexual Austrian cousin; the young American presidential adviser and the spoiled daughter of the nouveau-riche thug; and two Russian brothers that could not be more opposite in character. However, apart from a name and a brief character-tag you get nothing. They all feel like stick figures drawn at the corner of the pages containing the story.
You keep turning pages because you are curious, but, after a while, you realize that you do not actually care for any of them.
Around these characters the world collapses into World-War I and everyone's life is swept into the cataclysmic currents that engulf the world. Strangely, the political decisions and machinations described are oversimplified and described as much more naive and open than realistically possible. And everything has a strong left-wing bias.
On top of being a bloated book, for some strange reason, Follett makes numerous clumsy attempts to exonerate the House of Rothschilds from any wrongdoing. Their British branch is described as "peace loving" whereas the role of their German branch is conveniently omitted.
In fact, it was the Rothschilds who funded Lenin, Trotsky and their Bolshevik party in taking control of the Russian revolution. This well calculated move (which opened up what was later to be known as the Red Orchestra) turned an allied nation into the Communistic bogeyman that fueled the Cold War armament race of the past 50 years - and seeded the global debt crisis of our generation.
For over 1,200 years, in war or piece, republics or totalitarian regimes, this Khazarian House of international financing has been puppet-mastering history from the shadows - and the House always seem to win.
If this were a mere book of fiction it would be just an annoyance. However, Follett claims numerous historians as his advisers and, thus, opens himself to valid criticism. For all his historic claims, the story he tells is more of an Orwellian re-write than actual history.
Pass. With extreme prejudice.