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Sunday, September 23, 2012

"The Century Trilogy 1 and 2: Fall of Giants and Winter of the World" by Ken Follett (Reviewed by Liviu Suciu)

INTRODUCTION: Until 2010 I have never read a book by Ken Follett as I am not into thrillers, while his acclaimed The Pillars of the Earth did not tempt me overmuch either. However the following blurb for Fall of Giants was irresistible and I got and read the book on publication; while I enjoyed the epic-ness and narrative pull, I had some mixed impressions about the quality of the writing per se, though the content carried the novel for me. 

As time passed, Fall of Giants actually stayed much more with me than I expected and on the most recent reread, it actually read much better than originally as familiarity made me overlook the weaker stylistic points that grated a little the first time. However I include my original 2010 take below.

 "A thirteen-year-old Welsh boy enters a man's world in the mining pits; an American law student rejected by love finds a surprising new career in Woodrow Wilson's White House; a housekeeper for the aristocratic Fitzherberts takes a fateful step above her station, while Lady Maud Fitzherbert herself crosses deep into forbidden territory when she falls in love with a German spy; and two orphaned Russian brothers embark on radically different paths when their plan to emigrate to America falls afoul of war, conscription, and revolution.
From the dirt and danger of a coal mine to the glittering chandeliers of a palace, from the corridors of power to the bedrooms of the mighty, Fall of Giants takes readers into the inextricably entangled fates of five families-and into a century that we thought we knew, but that now will never seem the same again."

"Winter of the World picks up right where the first book left off, as its five interrelated families—American, German, Russian, English, Welsh—enter a time of enormous social, political, and economic turmoil, beginning with the rise of the Third Reich, through the Spanish Civil War and the great dramas of World War II, up to the explosions of the American and Soviet atomic bombs.
These characters and many others find their lives inextricably entangled as their experiences illuminate the cataclysms that marked the century. From the drawing rooms of the rich to the blood and smoke of battle, their lives intertwine, propelling the reader into dramas of ever-increasing complexity."

OVERVIEW/ANALYSIS:  Fall of Giants: (2010 assessment followed by 2012 reread assessment) This is a big blockbuster novel written in the newspaper/magazine style favored by such - in sff Harry Turtledove's tomes are similar in style - so you read it for its story/subject rather than for great characters, emotional or literary writing.

The author does well with intrigue and great society happenings and reasonably well with the "little people" part, but he is mostly abysmal in war scenes - basically Wikipedia or a military encyclopedia does them better - but good with historical portraits, with Wilson, Lenin, Churchill top of the list.

Lots of characters whose life intertwine in various ways - the most interesting by far were the German intelligence officer Walter von Ulrich and the strong willed maid, later women rights activist and politician Ethel Williams, though I had a soft spot for the roguish Lev Peshkov and his picaresque doings and for the earnest Gus Dewar - ultra-ridiculous name, but the character raises beyond it.

Others were more stereotypical and while they had their chance to shine, they did not really do it. In typical blockbuster fashion no character of note dies despite shells exploding in their face, policemen shooting at them and other high peril stuff, so the novel has a slight comic book aspect in the action scenes with no real suspense.

Overall I liked Fall of Giants better than I expected, while on the second end to end read just before Winter of the World was published, I really enjoyed it a lot as I got used with the prose, so it got a big bump in my rankings to the top 25 list of 2010 for its epic sweep which is one of my two top value criteria in a novel.

Winter of the World: 1933-1949, 2nd generation and a novel in which the characters are considerably better and more interesting than in the first volume - Carla Ulrich from Berlin, the Buffalo step-siblings Greg and Daisy Peshkov and Ethel's son Lloyd Williams are the best and the ones you really want to cheer for so to speak, though Boy Fitzherbert as the conflicted sort of villain, Woody DeWar as an idealist like his parents and Volodya Peshkov (the "official" cousin, but of course actual step sibling to the American Peshkovs), Red Army Intelligence officer and cynical patriot are also excellent. Pretty much everyone surviving from the older generation appears too but in more of a supporting role.

Lev Peshkov steals the scene whenever he appears with tons of memorable lines - now with 3 "official" women to boot, his long suffering wife Olga - Daisy's mom, longtime flame and closest "wife" in so far domestic arrangements and time spent go, Marga - Greg's mom and a young movie star as Lev has diversified in movies big time:

"‘I used to belong to this club,’ Lev said. ‘But in 1921 the chairman told me I had to resign because I was a bootlegger. Then he asked me to sell him a case of Scotch.’",

with Maud the other really engaging character from the older generation

The writing is definitely better too - or familiarity made me enjoy the style more - , while the narrative pull of novel is such that 900+ pages turn by themselves and I could not literally put the book down and stayed an all night to finish it, though of course I reread it twice to enjoy it at leisure.

The secrets from the first volume are still there, while the characters are witness and on occasion even movers in all the important events - the burning of the Reichstag and the Enabling Act debate that gave Adolf Hitler dictatorial powers despite the Nazis being short of majority in the Reichstag, the Spanish Civil war, the Blitz, Pearl Harbor, Midway, D-Day and much more, though I stop here to avoid spoiling the novel.
This time the author crafts their participation very well and the volume is not as casualty free as Fall of Giants.

I will close with one more tidbit: one could be better than a holiday in Hawaii in December and a Sunday morning ceremonial visit to the military base; well a party of our heroes, prepare to enjoy that, but of course the Sunday in question is the 7th....

Overall, Winter of the World came with quite high expectations and it surpassed them as again a true epic that shows once more the power of narrative pull and reading immersion, while I am curious if the author can top it in the final installemnt of the trilogy.


M. R. mathias said...

Nice review, Liviu. I love Ken Follet.

Anonymous said...

The American peshkovs are half siblings, not step siblings.

Diane Suter said...

Are Boy Fitzherbert and his younger brother Andy the legitimate sons of Earl Fitzherbert? Or are they the bastards of Fitz's buddy Bing Westhampton? There are many hints that the boys are not Fitz's, but the question is not resolved in the trilogy. Did I miss something?


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