Ken Follet - Fall of Giants

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,809
Location
UK
I especially enjoyed Pillars of the Earth (and mostly World Without End), his mediaeval duology (that will soon become a trilogy).

I therefore kept in mind that it might be worth checking out some more of his books.

Anyway, for some reason I felt like reading something historical set in the 20th century, so picked up Fall of Giants - especially as the ebook is currently only £1.19:
http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/0330460552/?tag=brite-21

The first in Ken Follett's bestselling Century Trilogy, Fall of Giants is a huge novel that follows five families through the world-shaking dramas of the First World War, the Russian Revolution, and the struggle for votes for women.

It is 1911. The Coronation Day of King George V. The Williams, a Welsh coal-mining family, is linked by romance and enmity to the Fitzherberts, aristocratic coal-mine owners. Lady Maud Fitzherbert falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London. Their destiny is entangled with that of an ambitious young aide to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and with two orphaned Russian brothers, whose plans to emigrate to America fall foul of war, conscription and revolution.

In a plot of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, Fall of Giants moves seamlessly from Washington to St Petersburg, from the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty.

The first scene is about 13-year old Billy Williams's first day working the pit. The prose is concise and easy to read, there's a strong on pace and little exposition, and an absolutely wonderful attention to detail that brings everything to life. It was a great short-story in its own right IMO, and it's a real shame that it cuts off in the Amazon preview.

I'm now almost up to Chapter 7, and the way that Follet manages to connect an international cast and events is really quite amazing.

Even more so is that this is a very human story, and Follet treats each character sympathetically, regardless as to whether they are royalist, socialist, democrat, or aristocrat. We knew their needs and desires - we have passionate love, unrequited love, radicalism, diplomacy, humanism, religion, all set against an astonishingly rich attention to history that never intrudes.

Perhaps not for everyone in either subject or style, but I feel that I am reading a master at work.

And if I enjoy this to the end, the second book is currently on offer at £1.79.

It'll be interesting to see how contemporary this trilogy gets - from what I've read, the third book gets at least to the 1960's.
 
Last edited:

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,809
Location
UK
Finally finished this, and for the most part, very much enjoyed it.

It's a hugely ambitious novel, following events from 1911 to 1923. We get to see first-hand character experiences of both the build-up and the after effects of World War 1, the Russian Revolution, and women's Suffrage. The story follows a coal-mining family and local aristocrats from a small Welsh town, a pair of Russian brothers, a German diplomat, and an American political advisor. All of their paths cross, often repeatedly, ensuring that this is a very joined up story.

The novel opens very strong, and continues at a good pace for quite some time. This is a very long book, though, and about two-thirds of the way through I found it flagging a little. Sometimes Follet's need to show historical events made the characters seem like passive observers in their own story arcs. Other times coincidence was used too much to in order to bring characters close to one another, especially for conflict. Scenes about the Russian civil war, following the revolution, is where the story really began to drag for me - but it wasn't that big a section.

Fall of Giants is not perfect. I would have liked a few things to have been done a little differently. But considering how huge and ambitious it is, I think Follet mostly hits his mark. Where he fails to probably comes from trying to achieve so much in the first place.

Overall, I found this to be a very enjoyable story, with a range of very different characters, and an authentic feeling of place - despite the incredible number of different settings.

Will definitely take a look at Winter of the World at some point, which follows the original characters - and their children - into WWII.
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,809
Location
UK
I've now finished Winter of the World.

For the most part, it is a good book - but it suffers from the same weaknesses as Fall of Giants. Too often characters are simply observers of historical events, rather than actively shaped by them.

The character of Greg Peshov is a good example - he somehow seems to be involved in the US State Department, and the Manhattan Project. He's sent out to discover a spy. He's the son of a gangster. He has a child with a black actress. And yet, he tends to be merely observe, rather than do anything. He doesn't really seem to want much, his scenes don't have him chasing goals. Where he does - such as pursuing the black actress - he quickly gives up, and chooses some other easy goal. This makes Greg seem shapeless, simply drifting from one scene to the next with little real purpose, especially later in the story.

It's an issue that affects too many in the cast. They tend to be most active when Follet is trying to fit them into an historical event, even if it does sometimes seem forced - and especially when it all too often and coincidentally allows them to cross the path of another POV character.

A big disappointment is that all the original characters from Fall of Giants are pushed into the background - we never have their POV in Winter of the World. The original cast are simply replaced by their children, and come into the story only incidentally. This makes the trilogy feel less less a continuous story. It would surely have been better if we could have followed some of the original characters becoming older, instead of having them cut out entirely.

Additionally, there is far too much focus on WWI and WWII - each book effectively centres around one of these. We see almost nothing of the 1920's. There's no seamless transition from one book to the next - the story stops, then restarts years later with different characters.

Despite its flaws, it is an enjoyable read for the most part. The horrors of the Nazis and NKVD are made very plain - sometimes a little too much for comfort. It is an achievement to bring such different parts of history to life. I just would have personally preferred it all to feel more integrated, and less like different parts forced together.

Certainly an achievement, but perhaps too ambitious - it doesn't so much creak at the seams as so much fail to hold together at times.

I have to admit, I'm not eager to read the third part - presumably, it is going to suddenly jump forward to the children of the children, and follow them through the 1960's - the civil rights movement, Kennedy, the Cuban Missile Crisis. And, no doubt, some of those children will be observers to many of these events - improbably so, and actually doing nothing directly.

Pillars of the Earth is still very much my favourite Follet book - the fact that it follows the same characters through the decades is a definite strong point, on top of his dedicated coverage of history. At least he doesn't need to force the latter point in that novel, though.
 

Brian G Turner

Fantasist & Futurist
Staff member
Supporter
Joined
Nov 23, 2002
Messages
25,809
Location
UK
Don't get me wrong, it is very good. I think there was a degree of brutality caused by coverage of the WWII events that made me especially uncomfortable as a reader. But my general criticisms come from being a writer and see potential technical flaws, which simply comes from his writing such a hugely ambitious work. It's still astonishing that Follet can achieve so much. And if the ebook promotion is still running, then £3 for both books is a steal.
 

Similar threads


Top