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.
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Aristocrats such as Fitz offer vivid examples of the way that the entitled can falter when confronted with the wars they helped start. Lest such a notion lapse into stereotype, his American counterpart, Gus Dewar, who works in the Wilson White House, offers a compelling counterargument. Just as important, he carries the wistful poignancy of a young man in a hurry facing unimagined circumstances.Skip to next paragraph
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Grigori and Lev Peshkov, Russian brothers in Follet’s panoply of characters, show how degradation and despair can lead people in different directions. Grigori, a metalworker, and Lev, a horse wrangler, go, respectively, from the slums of St. Petersburg to the forefront of Communism and to the underworld of organized crime in America.
This being a tale centered on World War I, plenty of blood spills, as well. The novel begins on the cusp of Austrian Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination and ends six years after the battlefields go silent, leaving 10 million dead.
Billy Williams, Fitz, and Walter von Ulrich, among others, allow Follett to sneak ample historical spinach into the story without a reader suspecting a thing. His roving eye wanders from the horrors of the Western Front and the Battle of the Somme to the Christmas Truce, when enemy combatants briefly ceased hostilities to share cigarettes and holiday greetings instead.
The hideous ravages of trench warfare can be seen, as well as the random fortunes (and misfortunes) of military life. One character disintegrates in a hail of bombs moments after stepping on the battlefield for the first time.
Then, too, there is the home front, where the earl’s independent-minded sister and Ethel Williams combine forces. Several years after the Treaty of Versailles, which promised a new world but instead stoked old antagonisms, Follett closes his masterful performance by bringing two central characters together for a fitting, delicious denouement.
The downside? Readers must wait until 2012 for the second installment, encompassing the Depression and World War II and enlisting the descendants of the characters introduced in “Fall of Giants.” Here’s hoping Follett can meet his own high standard for popular historical fiction of the best kind.
Erik Spanberg is a freelance writer in Charlotte, N.C.