Friday, January 23, 2015

Book Review [2015:1] - Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

I'm a huge fan of Ken Follett's epic duology Pillars of the Earth and World Without End. Actually I'm not sure that quite covers my feelings for those books. You know those books you have on your shelf to read again and again, like old friends? Something new every time, but also something warmly comforting about them. That's Pillars of the Earth for me. Consequently I've been awaiting this Century trilogy with bated breath, but also a sort of nervous excitement. The publication at the end of last year of the final in the series led to my excited embarkation of the trilogy over Christmas.

At first I was disappointed. The excellent writing and atmospheric descriptions were there but something was missing. I think the biggest issue is the sheer number of characters. Follett has attempted something quite remarkable in telling the story of the First World War from the point of view of Welsh miners, upper-class English, Russian peasants, American, and German families. Because the characters are not introduced slowly or piecemeal, the book requires an initial heavy commitment to buy in to them all, and to fully distinguish them from each other. Just as you fully inhabit one storyline, focus switches to another character.

Having said that this commitment is quickly rewarded. If there's one thing that Follett can do it is weave an engrossing story. There is some strangely clunky text; I found descriptions such as "pints of beer in glasses" very sticky.  There are some beautiful set pieces here, and some real stand-out storylines, intermingled with some frankly unbelievable coincidences. But it's fiction! I'm not particularly educated in the details of the first world war and the descriptions of daily life the trenches on both sides as well as technical discussion of the strategies of politicians and military was fascinating.  
Sadly not as immersive as Pillars of the Earth, but definitely worth a look if you are interested in the machinations of the early part of the last century. I look forward to reading the second in the series.

864 pages

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