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Fall of Giants

Ken Follett’s suspenseful epic of five families in the 20th century

Hold this book, all 985 pages, in your hands. And then reflect that it’s only Part I of a “Century Trilogy”, in which novelist Ken Follett will follow the various fortunes of five families as they traverse the 20th century.

It’s safe to say that Follett is a writer who sees the big picture – a fact that has been amply clear to his readers ever since he set aside the thrillers that made his early career (with such titles as Eye of the Needle and The Key to Rebecca), and hit the big time in 1989 with the massive medieval-history epic, The Pillars of the Earth. (“Pillars”, by the way, is currently on TV, in the form of an eight-hour miniseries starring Donald Sutherland and Ian McShane.)

It is a big leap from the medieval cathedral to the gathering storm clouds of World War I. But Follett makes the jump with alacrity, starting with the coronation day of the English King George V – the same day in which the fictitious 13-year-old Billy Williams starts his gritty career as a Welsh coal miner. As the terrified Billy descends into the mine, the worried reader descends right along with him; although Follett is just fine at creating dense and convoluted plot lines, it is the characters that grab us for this epic journey.

Representing five families – Welsh, American, German, Russian and English – the cast of characters crosses all the strata of society, from the desperately poor to the wealthy nobility. All are caught up in the international turmoil of the early 20th century, in which the “fall of giants” of the saga’s title refers to an era that saw the downfall of the Romanov czars, the Austro-Hungarian Empire, the Ottoman Empire, the resistance to women’s suffrage and the death of more than 10 million in World War I. The war, as Follett describes it, brings together (sometimes on opposing sides) his cast of characters as pawns, and occasionally as prime movers, in the conflict.

Even though we know the outcome of the novel’s major events, Follett makes this saga suspenseful. There are few slow points in the narrative, although this reader must confess to a few “eyes-glazing-over” moments in the lengthy sections about the origins of the Bolshevik Revolution. It’s not that Follett’s prose style is particularly brilliant; he doesn’t indulge in high flights of literary artistry. Instead, he specializes in simple, direct writing that focuses on the story line rather than its embellishments. Here is a crucial exchange, taking place between a German diplomat and his frustrated son, just after the Armistice when the seeds of World War II are already being sown. As the father concocts face-saving lies for the German citizenry, the son argues:

“The leaders of Europe did something wicked and foolish, and ten million men died as a result. At least let the people understand that, so that they will never let it happen again!”

“No,” his father said.

And we all know the outcome. But we want to know how Follett’s intriguing characters fare: who will live, die, fall in love, raise havoc? It’s well worth a journey of 985 pages through a book whose heft may help develop your biceps. What an argument for a Kindle!

It is perhaps Follett’s greatest virtue as a novelist than he has been able to bring forward a writing style he perfected in his earlier thrillers – suspenseful, tightly constructed, sharply characterized, plot-driven – into some of the biggest-picture fiction being written today. Essentially, he’s writing several interrelated books at once, without ever losing the inevitable forward impulse. And while it sounds bizarre to consider a book this huge a “page-turner,” that’s exactly what Fall of Giants is.

Melinda Bargreen, The Seattle Times, 25 September 2010