This was a phenomenal book. I’m sad that my experience with Ken Follett novels for years was with his shorter novels, like The Third Twin and The Key to Rebecca, that I mainly read for the dirty bits (I think I read The Third Twin went I was 13–several times). I discovered him as a historical fiction writer last year when I read the two Pillars of Earth books, and knew I needed to find more like that. A few weeks ago, I started the first of the Century Trilogy, titled Fall of Giants, on audiobook and loved it.
“In every country, those who were against war had been overruled. The Austrians had attacked Serbia when they might have held back; the Russians had mobilized instead of negotiating; the Germans had refused to attend an international conference to settle the issue; the French had been offered the chance to remain neutral and had spurned it; and now the British were about to join in when they might easily have remained on the sidelines.”
Fall of Giants begins just before World War I, and focuses on WWI’s impact on several families across the West: Billy and Ethel Williams (the children of poor Welsh miners), Earl Fitzherbert and his sister Maude (British aristocrats), Gregori & Lev Peshkov (Russian factory workers), Gus Dewar (an American politician) and Walter Ullrich (a German aristocrat). Everyone’s lives intertwine at some point: Ethel and Fitz have a secret fling, Maude and Ethel work together, Fitz and Walter went to school together, Maude and Walter love each other, as so on.
We watch over a decade how these people’s lives change due to their own actions as well as the war. A strong theme of overthrowing government, or the aristocrats, or tradition, runs through it all. As an American, the history of it fascinated me. Throughout high school history, the main focus of WWI is how it started, and how America ended it. We didn’t learn much of the in-between, the events in Russia, the effects of the blockades, etc. While I took some pretty intense World War II classes in college that gave a better picture of both wars (especially since they often focused on how the end of WWI and the state it left Germany in so easily lead to WWII), I still found myself quite ignorant of many of the events in this novel.
My favorite thing about this book, however, as well as the two Pillars of Earth books, was the women. Maude, Ethel, Dewar’s anarchist journalist friend Rosa, even filthy-mouthed Mildred: they were smart, interesting, tough people. Maude and Walter’s relationship in particular was fantastic: two well-written characters that fall in love and make you fall in love with them. None of this nonsense about love at first sight that focuses on physical attraction. Instead, these two were friends, discovered a mutual love of politics and fought against incredible odds to be together.
I can’t wait to start the second one, which I believe picks up in the 40s with the children of these characters. I’m hoping it’s just as grand and reaching as this novel.
The dirty bits were good, too.