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.
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.
As von Ulrich boards a train carrying Lenin back to Russia for the final push – make that, putsch – the blend of cloak-and-dagger and historical reference suit Follett’s strengths.
“They sat in a compartment under a dim electric light that gleamed off Lenin’s bald head,” he writes. “Walter was tense. He had to do this just right. It would be no good to beg or plead with Lenin, he felt sure. And the man certainly could not be bullied. Only cold logic would persuade him.”
Leon Trotsky, David Lloyd George and Kaiser Wilhelm II also make notable appearances in these pages. Making these extended cameos plausible while crafting scenes and characters memorable enough to dovetail and match actual historical events begins with research, to be sure, but ends with skillful plotting.
It is here that “Fall of Giants” offers the reader consistent satisfaction.
Time and again, Follett demonstrates the ravages visited by short-minded political decisions on the peoples who must endure them. Labor strife, food shortages, gender inequities, and other terms that sound so bland in so many accounts come to life when a pair of Russian brothers sees their mother shot in front of the Winter Palace by the czarist regime – and again when coal miners’ widows are left homeless because of their husbands’ unnecessary deaths on the job.
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.
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.