It is 1911. The Coronation Day of King George V. The Williams, a Welsh coal-mining family, is linked by romance and enmity to the Fitzherberts, aristocratic coal-mine owners. Lady Maud Fitzherbert falls in love with Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London. Their destiny is entangled with that of an ambitious young aide to U.S. President Woodrow Wilson and to two orphaned Russian brothers, whose plans to emigrate to America fall foul of war, conscription and revolution. In a plot of unfolding drama and intriguing complexity, "Fall of Giants" moves seamlessly from Washington to St Petersburg, 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.
This book is the first of a new “Century Trilogy” – dealing with the WWI era. The sense of major change in the world pervades the book – new social norms and systems of government form the backbone of the happenings in the characters lives. And, I did learn a few interesting things – that Woodrow Wilson was the first American president to visit Europe during his term in office, for instance.
As much as I understand the waves of change that were happening at this time, I did find it interesting that every man (save a couple) seemed to desire a “new” sort of woman – one unafraid to speak her mind/break the rules. And all the women (save a couple) depicted seemed to be just that type. Again, I know it was time period relevant, but sometimes the only seemed that the only thing that differentiated the main female characters was their hair color.
And yet - the reader is drawn back to that time. A time of such turmoil and bloodshed…and innocence. So much is yet to come, the reader and the writer know, and the characters are hapless to avoid the first World War.
“All his life he would cherish the memory of an endless caravan of camels alongside the railway line, the laden beasts plodding patiently through the snow, ignoring the twentieth century as it hurtled past them in a clash of iron and a shriek of steam.”
For Follett fans – this book is just what it they are looking for – another sweeping epic full of characters and details. For other readers – the story may prove interesting as a way to while away many hours.
There are zillions of characters in Fall of Giants, some fictional and some real-life, but the main cast includes a Welsh miner and his feminist/activist sister; two orphaned brothers in Russia; a young American man whose father is a US senator; a German spy; an aristocratic Englishman and his wife, who’s from Russian nobility. (The author is kind enough to include a helpful “cast of characters” for his readers and I consulted it frequently.)
Although it was slow-going at first, once I got 50 pages into Fall of Giants, I was hooked. The writing is just OK, but Ken Follett knows how to conjure up an engaging story. Writers of historical fiction who have a solid grounding in the age in which they’re writing aren’t forced to adhere to stereotyped characters, but Mr. Follett, in my opinion, doesn’t fall into that category; his characters are at times wooden and overly predictable. (A knowledgeable sales assistant, a former history teacher, at the bookstore where I bought Fall of Giants said he thought the author’s research was limited to what he found in a basic history text, and I think that’s about right.)
I could have done without the pages and pages about specifics of World War I battles, but I have a feeling some readers might like those pages best. And the sex scenes – they're tame and lame and the book would have been fine without them. I also could have done without the f-bombs that laced many of the characters' language.
I’m not yet certain whether I’ll read the next two books in this series – scheduled to come out in 2012 and 2014. Maybe, maybe not.
Some have complained about the formulaic and stereotypical portrayals in the novel, and there certainly is some basis for those complaints. However, stereotypes develop for a reason, and I can't say that most of the characters contained in the book strained credibility. As for being formulaic, it is historical fiction and for the most part, faithfully follows the course of the war and the events that preceeded it.
That having been said, is this a literary tour de force? Certainly not. Is it an entertaining bit of historical fiction? I found it so. Not up to the standards of Michener or Edward Rutherfurd, but not a one or two star effort by any means. Anyone that thinks so has certainly either been very fortunate in their reading selections or led a very sheltered literary life.
My biggest criticism of this book would probably be the numerous sexual encounters vividly described therein; not because I’m a prude, or dislike erotic reading, but because they are so sophomoric and silly. Many have no purpose other than to simply introduce sex into the storyline. Had they been well written, believable and perhaps more integral to the story, they might have been enjoyable. As they are, they simply cause one to roll one’s eyes in amusement.
A second irritating feature of the novel is the ridiculous coincidences that occur at several points in the story. There are billions of people in the world, yet the same people have a remarkable way of traveling throughout the world and mysteriously running into each other, despite having no reason to do so. As with the gratuitous sex, it doesn’t destroy the novel, but detracts from it nevertheless.
On the plus side, the historical backdrop is one not commonly found, World War I, the Russian Revolution and the years leading to those monumental events, from the British, Russian, German and American perspectives (after all, who really cares about the French?). Despite being a big fan of historical fiction and non-fiction history, I can honestly say that this novel taught me quite a few things of which I was not aware. That, and the fact that I found it moderately entertaining, easily overcame the minor drawbacks cited above.
Follett endeared himself to me with Pillars of the Earth, followed by World Without End. This one is another sweeping historical saga set in Europe and North America in the twentieth century, encompassing World War I and the Russian Revolutions. Characters serve the plot, as I’ve come to expect from Follett, and appear in a myriad of interesting roles: aristocrats, coal miners, fallen women, soldiers, diplomats, and politicians. Among them: miner Billy Williams and his sister, Ethel, a woman’s suffragist; German officer Walter von Ulrich; Lord Fitzherbert and his rebellious sister, Maude; and the Peshkov brothers. This is the second of Follett’s epic tales I’ve heard narrated by John Lee, who is excellent.
We are introduced to the Williams family in Wale as thirteen-year-old Billy starts work in the coal mine. His sister, Ethel, works for the local gentry, the Fitzherberts, as a maid but is raised to housekeeper when the incumbent fell ill just before a royal visit. Earl Fitzherbert invited a number of bright young men to meet the king including Germans Walter and Robert von Ulrich and the American lawyer Gus Dewar. The earl is married to a Russian princess whom he met when he was a diplomat in St. Petersburg. The earl's sister, Lady Maude Fitzherbert who is a suffragette much to her brother's dismay, is also in attendance. The earl's wife's family in Russia hung the father of Grigori and Lev Peshkov because he was trying to organize the local peasants. Grigori and Lev moved to St. Petersburg with their mother who was soon killed by the Tsar's militia. Grigori looked after the younger Lev but dreamed of moving to the USA. Gus Dewar, who had a tour of the factory where Grigori and Lev worked when he was in Russia, was able to answer some questions Grigori had. All these people interact to some degree even through the war. It's a bit of a job to keep all the threads separate but it is a compelling tale. I particularly liked the last scene of the book.
But no such luck for me in the present instance because I picked up Fall of Giants as soon as it was released, and now I am going to have to wait God knows how long for parts 2 and 3 of The Century Trilogy. I will be just dying of curiosity to know what will happen next to Fitz, Bea, Maud, Walter, Grigori, Lev, Billy, Ethel, Katrina, and all of their babies who are still quite young.
But that is alright because all of us who have read this first book can let our imaginations run wild in the meantime. When books 2 and 3 finally do come out, we can find out how prescient we were. I think Lev and Grigori are due for a final showdown. The reconciliation at the end of book 1 cannot possibly hold. Or perhaps it will fall to their respective sons and daughters to have a nasty fight. I can't wait to see. And all of the descendants of the Fitzherbert and the Willams families are bound to have some skirmish in the future. Long live the multi-generational family saga.
I do agree with the comment of one reviewer who was disappointed that no French family was among the list of main characters. But perhaps that would have made the cast too unwieldy.
And what a brilliant finale.
This book is a compulsory reading for those who appreciate a well done job. Follet has a special talent to mix historical events with fiction creating a reliable atmosphere where you can really imagine what it would have been like to live at the beginning of the XXth century. And he does it splendidly as you have different views from a wide range of people: Welsh coal miners, the remains of the Edwardian British nobility, revolutionary working classes, Prime Ministers, Presidents and secret agents.
We are able to follow different characters in Britain, America, Germany and Russia and come to understand the complex events that led the world to the WWI. I've never been really drawn to politics but I have to admit that this book caught my attention, and for the first time I fully understood the reasons why all the countries fought the way they did. And as usual, with this knowledge, I got rid of some cliches acquired over the years, realising that there weren't guilty or innocent countries, heroes or damned, just a bunch of people acting proudly, recklessly and without real grasp of the consequences of their acts. Acting like humans, in the end, committing stupid mistakes and being too proud to admit it.
The result: devastation, millions and millions of wasted lives, unlimited suffering.
But also: change, progress, hope, justice.
It's even more surprising that the people who changed history were our great-grandparents, a brave generation who had the guts to live through a war and create something good out of it.
They didn't know what was coming though...and I can't wait for the second novel in this trilogy to see it in live through Follet's characters.
The story is absorbing, covering working conditions both in Welsh coal mines and in Russian factories and bringing to light the general living conditions of the times. The assassination of the Austrian heir to the throne in June, 1914, provokes a major crisis. Walter, the German diplomat, is an example of the more enlightened younger generation of Germans which sees war as a disaster, while his father welcomes it. Follett does an excellent job of showing the choices made at each point, where war could have been averted, and the attitudes that led to the disaster of World War I. Grigori and Lev, the two russian brothers, take drastically different paths, Lev escaping with his brother’s help to the US while Grigori gets caught up in the war and the subsequent Russian revolution.
For much of the book, Follett’s prose is pretty workman-like--adequate but no more. But he is at his best (after all, he wrote plenty of thrillers before he turned to historical fiction) in describing the prelude to the war, the Great War itself, and the Russian revolution. In fact, I think the best part of the book--for me, the most gripping--is his practically minute-by-minute account of the takeover of the Russian Revolution by Lenin and the Bolsheviks. This section alone is worth reading the entire book.
While the writing quality is uneven, the story never is. The characters are believable and the appearances of Churchill, Lenin, Lloyd George and other historical figures is well done and based either on events that happened or events that are quite plausible.
All in all, an excellent read even if the prose is at time laborious.
Fall of Giants follows the ups and downs of a number of characters from various classes and countries and will, I expect, follow them and the subsquent generations through the next 100 years since this is the "Century Trilogy". It opens in the years before World War I and most of the book covers the war, it's events and it's politics as seen by officers, regular soldiers, women and traces the rise of the Soviets and the Russian Revolution.
We see life from the viewpoints of the poor in Russia and a mining village in Wales where an Earl and his family also live. We see the lives of the upper class British, a middle class man from the USA and another from Germany. All of the people that start the book off as struggling working poor work themselves up a bit by the end in various ways, mainly through politics, some by luck and the seat of their pants.
The book is heavy on politics from the "inside" (Britain, Germany, Russia and military) which might be a bit dull for some people who aren't into history, and light on romance though there is a bit of that, too. The characters seem very well thought out and drawn out and you get a very good feel for life in the various locations at that time. I have to admit that i skimmed through some of the war and battle scenes but thought that my father would have enjoyed it all. I did find the politics behind the Russian Revolution quite interesting and learned a few things about how WWI really started.
I did like the book, but it won't be to everyone's taste. If you like politics and/or history, you will enjoy it. If you like historical romance with a little bit of the above, you probably won't.
Other reviewers criticized Follett's detailed historical descriptions, but I thought these descriptions made the characters more dynamic and helped explain the complexities of international politics leading into the Great Depression and WW II. This is a great read for history buffs!