Winter of the World is the sequel to Fall of Giants, a Ken Follett novel set in the early years of the twentieth century, with a focus on the first world war. Winter of the World focuses on the second world war, starting in the early thirties before venturing into the beginnings of the first world war and following it through to the end. Like Fall of Giants, it focuses on a relatively condensed period of history compared to Follett’s other historical novels. The gap between the two novels is also quite small, and many of the previous novel’s protagonists appear in supporting roles to their children, who make up the majority of the main cast. This was good since already it made the book feel like a true sequel, even though we see things from their children’s perspective now rather than their own.
I am tempted to say that having the children as point of view characters is a good thing, given my misgivings with a lot of the previous novel’s characters, but there are still a few weak characters in there. First off though, let’s list off the strong. Ethel’s son Lloyd is surprisingly well rounded as a character, especially when he learns his true heritage later on in the novel, and as a whole his romance with socialite Daisy is intriguing. Ethel is still boring, but she isn’t a point of view character any longer so it no longer has an impact on the story. Most of the characters based in Germany are also rather interesting. These include Carla and Eric Von Ulrich, the children of Walter and Maud. Maud is probably a stronger character than ever, with everything she goes through in the novel, despite no longer having point of view segments. The same goes with Eric and Carla, who have very strong character arcs which show the brutality of Nazi Germany. Carla’s love life felt a bit tacked on though, which lost a few brownie points with me, since it seemed like it was little more than an afterthought with her.
Daisy Peshkov, Lloyd’s lover, is a character for whom I have mixed feelings. She has an interesting story arc with her husband Boy Fitzherbert and her attempts to leave him but it seems to come at the cost of her family ties. She is the daughter of Lev Pershkov, who is still an asshole, but given how little she interacts with both him and her mother it is very easy to forget this. Lev Peshkov himself is examined a bit more in detail in the form of Greg, Lev’s son fathered by his mistress Marga, with whom Lev has a closer relationship than with his wife. Greg’s story arc is fairly boring, even though it deals with the intriguing concept of an interracial relationship in the thirties/forties I had difficulties getting behind him as a character.
Meanwhile in Russia we get a more interesting Peshkov in the form of Vladimir Peshkov, often called Volodya. Volodya is Lev’s son by his former lover in Russia, Katerina and is raised by Lev’s brother Grigori, who married Katerina in the previous novel. He shows the point of view of communist Russia, similar to Grigori in the previous novel, but his espionage often puts him in places such as Germany, and he frequently encounters some of the other point of view characters. His story arc jumps from place to place but somehow remains interesting. My only gripe is that when he learns his true heritage, it comes late into the novel and generally doesn’t impact the plot the way it did for Lloyd.
In America the Dewar family are once again the weaker characters. Both Woody and Chuck Dewar manage to be reasonably bland and boring characters, with the former’s story arc basically degenerating into nothingness following the death of his sweetheart in the pearl harbour attacks. Chuck is more interesting since he turns out to be gay and, like the interacial relationship in Greg’s story arc, it was interesting it as it was in that era. My biggest gripe is that he is suddenly killed off, bringing his character arc to an abrupt end. I don’t like it when writers “bury” their gay characters and to me it seemed like Follett was too lazy to write the later stages of Chuck’s relationship with boyfriend Eddie.
As far as antagonists go, the book has two very interesting ones. Boy Fitzherbert and Thomas Macke manage to be interesting antagonists, with the latter being a point of view character for several chapters. Boy was a fascist in his youth and a serial adulterer with a mean streak. He marries Daisy and for the most part is the main antagonist for both her and Lloyd during the course of their romance, especially since he actively avoids divorcing her out of spite after he learns of Daisy’s relationship with Lloyd. What makes this story arc, and his character as a whole interesting, is the fact that he and Lloyd are actually brothers. I was hoping that eventually Boy would get over his grudge and make his peace with Lloyd, but this only happened when Boy was on his death’s door after crashing his plane, something which Lloyd just happened to be around to witness.
Thomas Macke on the other hand is a member of Gestapo, and is the antagonist on the German side of the story, especially for characters such as Eric and Carla Von Ulrich. He is the classic sadistic antagonist I have come to expect from Follett and in that regard he didn’t disappoint. My only issue is that he died a bit too early for my tastes as the book still had a lot of ground to cover. In my mind he was one of the novel’s main antagonists so it was weird to see him die at the point where he did, though he no doubt deserved it.
The plot in general is a lot better than it was in Fall of Giants and character like Macke serve to give the novel a direct antagonists, and for a duration it seemed a bit less like the events novel it’s predecessor was. It still fell into this territory towards the end however, and like Fall of Giants it had a long denouement following the end of World War 2 which just took too long to end and covered a bit too much time in-story for my tastes. I know this is pretty much the typical Follett ending, but it bugs me all the same. There were some good twists along the way though, and in the middle some of the story arcs seemed to hit a nice flow which worked well for the novel as a whole.
Overall Winter of the World is still a Follett novel at heart, with a lot of the flaws I’ve commented on in previous reviews. In some respects though I seem to have come to terms with them, and I have to admit that some of his characters have improved when compared to those of his previous novels. They still feel like cardboard cut outs at places but by the end the story it is very easy to forget that for some characters. Not the best book by any means, but it is certainly one of my favourite Follett novels by far, and is a clear reminder of why I read Follett’s novels in the first place.
IN A WORD: IMPROVED