Fall of Giants
Ken Follett’s “Century Trilogy” is off to a strong start with "Fall of Giants" – a massive, compelling story of World War I.
When Ken Follett published a doorstop novel in 1989 set in the Middle Ages and centering on the construction of a cathedral, it marked a major departure for an author known for turning out brisk thrillers.Skip to next paragraph
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That book, “The Pillars of the Earth,” sold boatloads and won raves. Follett enjoyed his foray into what were for him uncharted waters, but soon got back to the business of more conventional thrillers. Two years ago, he resurrected his historical muse in “World Without End.” Set in the same English town as “Pillars of the Earth” but 200 years later, its sprawling cast included descendants from the earlier book and took place amid the great plague. It, too, won favorable reviews and became a fixture on bestseller lists.
Those two historical novels laid the foundation for what no doubt will be Follett’s most audacious literary adventure: The Century Trilogy. If the first installment – the recently published Fall of Giants – is any sign, readers are in for a memorable, and lengthy, ride.
The first novel thumps down on the nightstand with heft at 1,000 pages. Reviewers love to wax poetic about pages fluttering past. Follett is among the handful of authors capable of justifying such hype. Starting life as a thriller writer trained him well to keep plots – and pages – moving at a torrid pace.
In “Fall of Giants,” he manages to steer more than 100 significant characters (fictional and real figures both stride across Follett’s vast stage) amid the buildup and subsequent carnage of World War I.
The primary protagonists come from five families: one American, one Welsh, one Russian, one English, and one German.
Welsh siblings Billy and Ethel Williams give the novel its heart. When the book opens, Billy has just turned 13 and is making his first trip into the coal mine with his father, who is a union organizer. Ethel, 18, is on the staff at the home of Earl Fitzherbert.
The Williams brother-and-sister pair live in a struggling working-class neighborhood and town, a place where the earl and a few others live in comfort while everyone else struggles to stay afloat. By creating a stern but clever union organizer and a feisty young lady whose humble work puts her in contact with the powerful, Follett has an ideal platform for connecting the otherwise mundane day-to-day struggles of a small town with high-stakes political machinations.
Hello, Winston, and greetings, Vladimir.
What drives some readers and reviewers crazy about historical fiction is what makes it so endearing to those of us who embrace it: The frequent brushes with real-life historical figures and plot coincidences (contrivances in the view of some) that tie the two together. To be sure, this is a delicate balancing act, and, in the hands of lesser writers, often devolves into parody, unraveled by painful expository dialog and cumbersome happenstance.
Follett manages these challenges with aplomb. He allows a glimpse or two of everyone from King George V to Woodrow Wilson without sacrificing narrative momentum and while maintaining the story’s all-important verisimilitude.
Happenstance and coincidental meetings abound as Follett conjures twists and turns of fate that feel true. Thus, Winston Churchill arrives at Earl Fitzherbert’s home in Wales in the spring of 1918 as both bane and blessing to the aristocracy.
The earl, known as Fitz, is hoping Churchill and others invited for an Easter weekend meeting can come up with ideas to stop the Bolshevik movement in Russia. Follett has Churchill bound into the earl’s home with the expected relentless bravado, “a small, slight figure with red hair and a pink complexion. There was rain on his boots. He wore a well-cut suit of wheat-colored tweed and a bow tie the same blue as his eyes. He was forty-three, but there was still something boyish about him as he nodded to acquaintances and shook hands with guests he did not know.”
Another central fictional character, Walter von Ulrich, the military attaché at the German Embassy in London, finds himself funneling cash to the other side of the Russian Revolution, led by Vladimir Lenin.