It’s been nearly two months since I started reading this book and I’m proud to say I’m at the stage where I can finally review it. Fall of Giants is the first book in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy, a series of novels covering the history of the twenty first century. The book starts in 1911 and covers the entirety of World War 1 before finally ending in the 1920’s over a decade after it started. Like the novels set in medieval England, both of which I have previously reviewed, this is a generational epic although it is not quite on the same scale. The scale is a bit shorter than the medieval era novels and I will debate on whether this worked to the novel’s benefit soon enough. First though, the story.
In terms of writing the pacing has somewhat improved but not by much. Through most of the novel the events are nicely spaced out and follow a neat timeline. Yet, like other Follett novels before it, it fits in a lot of events towards the end and suddenly covers time faster than he rest of the novel. The problem is not as prevalent in his medieval novels but it is still there. While I did appreciate the shorter timeline, as I read the novel the pacing seemed to have the same problems regardless. The end of the novel was still the same drawn out anticlimactic affair as before.
Like the rest of Follet’s historical novels this is a character based work. The historical events are mostly a framework for the drama surrounding the lives of the characters within the novel. The work mostly follows the lives of two families, the Williams and the Fitzherberts. The Williams are poor while the Fitzherberts are rich and members of the two families drive a lot of the plot. However there are a few accessory characters who are just as important such as Walter von Ulrich, a spy at the German Embassy in London, Gus Dewar, aide to President Woodrow Wilson and Russian brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov. Through these characters the novels cover a lot of distance, travelling across the world from England to Germany, Russia and America and everywhere in between.
Ethel Williams’ plot kicks off after she ends up in a romance with Edward “Fitz” Fitzherbert, who licenses the land on which the coal mine, where her family work, is built. However it goes sour after the affair produces a child and Ethel is left to fend for herself as a single mother. This ties in with the storyline of Maud Fitzherbert, Fitz’s more liberal sister. Part of Maud’s story arc revolves around her attempts to help Women gain more rights, partly because of hardships Ethel and people like her face during the story. However this is not all Maud does. Another important part of her character arc is her romance and eventual secret marriage to Walter von Ulrich. The primary factor complicating the romance is the fact that Maud is of higher social status than Walter, bringing the element of class conflict into the plot again and reinforcing it as one of the book’s major themes. This forbidden romance was one of the more interesting plots in then novel.
Another interesting storyline was that of Grigori Peshkov, who is left to care for Lev’s pregnant girlfriend after helping him flee Russia. He isn’t too interesting as a character with a rather generic character arc of caring for his new family. However he is the main conduit through which we experience the Russian revolution, which was the event I was most looking forward to reading. Following the events as they progressed was interesting, especially the way the rest of the world reacted to it in the aftermath. I wish that Grigori could have been more developed as a character though.
Character depth, like the other Follett historical novels, is a problem that has cropped up once again. Grigori is not the only character who I felt had a rather generic character arc. Ethel Williams’ character arc dwindles towards the end of the novel after she settles down with another man. Her brother Billy Williams is worse. He does nothing of real interest in the novel except sign up to fight in the war and react to the hellish experiences he has on the battlefield. His romance with Ethel’s roommate is sidelined, and a lot of his plotlines in general are overshadowed by the likes of Walter von Ulrich and Maud Fitzherbert. His story arc gains traction towards the end but by then it is too late and I found it hard to care. Grigori’s brother is constantly sidelined throughout the novel as well, but I don’t like him for other reasons primarily because he is such a huge prick and manages to get away with everything he does in the end.
However the worst offender is Gus Dewar, who is not only boring but literally does nothing throughout the entire novel except interact with a few of the other point of view characters and act as a conduit from which to experience the American side of the story. Out of all the characters he is the one who didn’t seem to have any real purpose in the story. He personifies the problem with Ken Follet’s point of view characters. They exist to show a certain aspect of a place’s history and have boring generic personalities which barely carry the plot forward. Yet, Gus Dewar is exceptional in that I didn’t care about his story arc from the word go and nothing in the story really stood to change that attitude.
I was a bit disappointed to learn that the novel lacked a central antagonist in vein of Follett’s medieval novels. While I have previously criticised such characters I find them preferable to no antagonist. This was one of my major troubles when it came to getting behind the plot since there wasn’t anything unifying the characters’ plotlines except for the war. Fitz is an antagonist of sorts to certain characters but his point of view segments establish him as a sympathetic character, making him more of an anti-hero of sorts if anything. Whatever the case he certainly wasn’t the villain. While I do appreciate works without an antagonist I felt that this book was so disconnected that I can’t help but feel that maybe it did need one.
Overall I felt like the work had a lot to improve on. The World War 1 era is not a great era of interest for me, aside from a handful of topics such as Russia. Nor is it something I am particularly well read on. Hence the novel had to appeal to me with its characters in order to be of interest. Yet, like the rest Follett’s historical novels the characters leave a lot to be desired in terms of personality. As a whole there were only a handful of point of view characters who I actually found interesting and at times I wondered if there were too many to give any one story arc the focus it deserved. This book had its good parts, but in my mind it ended up feeling like just another Follett novel.
IN A WORD: DULL