There is no doubt that Ken Follett is a master of the sweeping historical narrative. His previous projects, Pillars of the Earth, and World Without End, follow the lives of families and their descendants through the building of a Cathedral in the 12th century. As this period of history is not one of my favourites, I had a hard time with these books. His new trilogy, however, I find quite interesting and fun to read.
Keeping with his style of following families through history, Follett, in Fall of Giants, follows five families through the events of the First World War. The story moves chronologically jumping around from the five different families he introduces at the start, The Dewar’s from the United States, the Fitzherbert’s who are members of the English aristocracy, the Williams’, a Welsh mining family, the Von Ulrich’s who are German aristocracts, and the Peshkov’s, a pair of Russian brothers. Follett follows these families as their paths cross through the events of the First World War, and continues to tell their stories in Winter of the World, which takes place in the years between 1920-1945. Is third book plans to follows these families through the events of the Cold War.
Through Fall of Giants, Follett captures perfectly the romanticism and tragedy of the First World War. The relationship between the English Earl Fitherbert and the German Walter Von Ulrich, is especially poignant as the two go from friends and schoolmates to fighting on opposing sides of the war. The aristocracy in Europe often had connections to one another, and many of those ties were severed during the First World War when loyalty to one’s country had to take the place of loyalty to one’s class.
Winter of the World, was a bit of a let down for me, and maybe just because Follett tried to do too much. In the second instalment of this trilogy Follett tries to detail the events of the Roaring Twenties, the Great Depression, The Spanish Civil War, and the Second World War. He stretches himself a bit too thin and some of the plot lines seems forced.
I have one more gripe with Follett and that is his portrayal of female characters. While the female characters in these books are strong women, they often seem one-dimensional and lack depth. The characters of Maud and Ethel, while both being fiercely independent, tend to still fall into stereotyped stock characters. Maud is a woman trapped by her class, while Ethel is a servant in the Great House and falls into trouble. It’s a minor fault of his, and I may be the only one to feel this way.
These books both provide an enjoyable trip through history and I am looking forward to the third installment.