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Fall of Giants

Follett’s hugely ambitious saga is a sweeping success

Ken Follett has hit another one out of the park with the initial installment of the hugely ambitious Century Trilogy. His fans will rejoice at the richness, complexity, historical sweep and simmering lust in a saga spanning the years 1911 to 1923, with a cast ranging from the despicable to the indomitable.

Follett roams freely and authoritatively over events in Britain, the continent, Russia and the upstart powerhouse, America. His expansive palette includes the political breakdown leading up to World War I, ferocious battle panoramas, the Bolshevik Revolution, suffragettes on the march, defeat of the League of Nations, Prohibition and the rise of gangsterism.

Characters flow in and out of locales and bob up in the most startling instances. One wonders whether Follett split his time between the keyboard and a master plotting maze. If so, the overall effect works powerfully to produce the dominant theme that the world of aristocrats and peasants, servants and those served, working stiffs and those who stiffed them changed forever after Sarajevo in 1914.

The habitually best-selling author drives this home with a stunning series of narratives. In the first, fiery Welsh miners are pitted against their exploiter, Earl Fitzherbert. Fitz, as he’s called, is married to a pregnant Russian aristocrat when he seduces Ethel Williams, the daughter of the mine union chief, during her service at the manor house. Ethel moves on to succeed as a firebrand writer who raises the earl’s son in a loveless marriage and wins election to Parliament, an accomplishment that greatly vexes the aristocrat because of his opposition to all social change.

In turn, Ethel’s brother, Billy, who entered the colliery at 13 and knows about the foul deed, torments Fitz with insubordination while they serve bravely as sergeant and major, respectively, at the Somme and during the postwar occupation of Russia. As the Red and White armies battle, Fitzherbert has the brash young man court-martialed on trumped-up charges. But Billy exacts revenge after being released by defeating the earl’s candidate for office. To compound matters, Fitzherbert’s suffragette sister, Lady Maud, has secretly married Walter von Ulrich, a German diplomat and reluctant warrior, and goes swanning off to join him after the war.

A continent away, as the revolution engulfs Russia, the Peshkov brothers, Grigori and Lev, make life-affirming choices. Lev escapes criminal prosecution by fleeing with Grigori’s savings. After an unwanted detour to the Welsh mines, he arrives in Buffalo, N.Y., where, after some apprenticing and dallying, he is forced to marry the daughter of the Russian émigré crime boss (think bootlegging potential).

Meanwhile, Grigori weds Lev’s old girlfriend, accepts their baby as his, and begins a spectacular trajectory in the Communist Party. And, in the final intersection of characters, Gus Dewar, an adviser to President Woodrow Wilson and also from Buffalo, brushes against this disparate group of players in a series of diplomatic and romantic encounters that further act to bind the story lines.

With the summer reading season just past, snuggle into autumn with Fall of Giants and happily contemplate the arrival of the next two installments.

Jonathan E. Lazarus, The Newark Star-Ledger, 26 September 2010