The BookBrowse Review

Published June 22, 2022

ISSN: 1930-0018

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A Novel
by Ken Follett

Paperback (7 Jun 2022), 816 pages.
Publisher: Penguin Books
ISBN-13: 9780593300039

The new must-read epic from master storyteller Ken Follett: more than a thriller, it's an action-packed, globe-spanning drama set in the present day.

"Every catastrophe begins with a little problem that doesn't get fixed." So says Pauline Green, president of the United States, in Follett's nerve-racking drama of international tension.

A shrinking oasis in the Sahara Desert; a stolen US Army drone; an uninhabited Japanese island; and one country's secret stash of deadly chemical poisons: all these play roles in a relentlessly escalating crisis.

Struggling to prevent the outbreak of world war are a young woman intelligence officer; a spy working undercover with jihadists; a brilliant Chinese spymaster; and Pauline herself, beleaguered by a populist rival for the next presidential election.

Never is an extraordinary novel, full of heroines and villains, false prophets and elite warriors, jaded politicians and opportunistic revolutionaries. It brims with cautionary wisdom for our times, and a delivers a visceral, heart-pounding read that transports readers to the brink of the unimaginable.

Chapter 1

Seen from a plane, the car would have looked like a slow beetle creeping across an endless beach, the sun glinting off its polished black armor. In fact it was doing thirty miles per hour, the maximum safe speed on a road that had unexpected potholes and cracks. No one wanted to get a flat tire in the Sahara Desert.

The road led north from N'Djamena, capital city of Chad, through the desert toward Lake Chad, the biggest oasis in the Sahara. The landscape was a long, flat vista of sand and rock with a few pale yellow dried-up bushes and a random scatter of large and small stones, everything the same shade of mid-tan, as bleak as a moonscape.

The desert was unnervingly like outer space, Tamara Levit thought, with the car as a rocket ship. If anything went wrong with her space suit she could die. The comparison was fanciful and made her smile. All the same she glanced into the back of the car, where there were two reassuringly large plastic demijohns of water, enough to keep them all alive in an emergency until help arrived, probably.

The car was American. It was designed for difficult terrain, with high clearance and low gearing. It had tinted windows, and Tamara was wearing sunglasses, but even so the light glared off the concrete road and hurt her eyes.

All four people in the car wore shades. The driver, Ali, was a local man, born and raised here in Chad. In the city he wore blue jeans and a T-shirt, but today he had on a floor-length robe called a galabiya, with a loose cotton scarf wound around his head, traditional clothing for protection from the merciless sun.

Next to Ali in the front was an American soldier, Corporal Peter Ackerman. The rifle held loosely across his knees was a US Army standard-issue short-barreled lightweight carbine. He was about twenty years old, one of those young men who seemed to overflow with chirpy friendliness. To Tamara, who was almost thirty, he seemed ridiculously young to be carrying a lethal weapon. But he had no lack of confidence-one time he had even had the cheek to ask her for a date. "I like you, Pete, but you're much too young for me," she had said.

Beside Tamara in the rear seat was Tabdar "Tab" Sadoul, an attachŽ at the European Union mission in N'Djamena. Tab's glossy mid-brown hair was fashionably long, but otherwise he looked like an off-duty business executive, in khakis and a sky-blue button-down shirt, the sleeves rolled to show brown wrists.

She was attached to the American embassy in N'Djamena, and she wore her regular working clothes, a long-sleeved dress over trousers, with her dark hair tucked into a headscarf. It was a practical outfit that offended no one, and with her brown eyes and olive skin she did not even look like a foreigner. In a high-crime country such as Chad it was safer not to stand out, especially for a woman.

She was keeping an eye on the odometer. They had been on the road a couple of hours but now they were close to their destination. Tamara was tense about the meeting ahead. A lot hung on it, including her own career.

"Our cover story is a fact-finding mission," she said. "Do you know much about the lake?"

"Enough, I think," Tab said. "The Chari River rises in central Africa, runs eight hundred and seventy miles, and stops here. Lake Chad sustains several million people in four countries: Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Chad. They're small farmers, graziers, and fishermen. Their favorite fish is the Nile perch, which can grow to six feet long and four hundred pounds."

Frenchmen speaking English always sounded as if they were trying to get you into bed, Tamara thought. Perhaps they always were. She said: "I guess they don't catch many Nile perch now that the water is so shallow."

"You're right. And the lake used to cover ten thousand square miles, but now it's only about five hundred. A lot of these people are on the edge of starvation."

Full Excerpt

Excerpted from Never by Ken Follett. Copyright © 2021 by Ken Follett. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

An action-packed thriller that imagines the unthinkable: The US on the brink of nuclear war with China.

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Ken Follett's thriller Never outlines a chillingly possible path to World War III. Fifty-year-old Pauline Green is in the third year of her first term as President of the United States when a seemingly minor attack on American soldiers occurs in Chad, Africa. Pressured by political rivals and the hawks on her staff, she retaliates, setting in motion a tit-for-tat game with frightening stakes, one that has the potential to affect every person on the planet. On the other side of the world, Chang Kai, an ambitious intelligence officer, battles with China's old guard, who are more concerned with saving face than avoiding war. And in northern Africa, CIA operatives Tamara Levit and Abdul Haddad seek to head off warlords, terrorists and drug dealers who have their own agendas.

When we think about the history of a war, we often point to a specific event that's said to have started it, like the "shot heard 'round the world" that supposedly began the American Revolution, or the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand that triggered World War I. In reality, though, a lot of maneuvering takes place before countries begin hostilities, and the ramp-up is seldom a quick affair. (The US didn't invade Iraq until March 2003, 18 months after the 9/11 attack for which the country's leaders were blamed.) What makes Never a standout is how brilliantly Follett captures that slow, almost invisible preamble. Small actions lead to larger ones, treaties obligate countries to intervene, personal biases influence decisions. The author's skill in depicting that build-up makes the novel utterly terrifying, and the actions he describes, taken by seemingly reasonable people, are incredibly plausible.

Follett's narrative unfolds slowly as he sets the stage for this roller coaster ride of a tale. He takes his time, carefully creating his characters before amping up the action. We learn, for example, about President Green's political views, those of her Trump-like rival, what life is like in the White House, and how her husband and 15-year-old daughter navigate the trials of being part of a world leader's household. Tamara, we find, is smart and resourceful; she's in love with a French intelligence officer; and she has a difficult supervisor, blind to the implications of events transpiring around him. Most of these little details aren't critical to the plot, yet they add a sense of realism, building a world that readers can relate to and characters we care about. Perhaps even more importantly, Follett shows us what the characters themselves care about, making even their more questionable decisions justifiable. He paints no heroes or villains here, just regular people trying their best to do the right thing.

Although the book is ultimately a high-octane page-turner, it takes a long time to get there. I absolutely couldn't put it down from about the halfway point on, but the first section was a struggle. I'm glad I persisted, but at over 800 pages, it could have used a little judicious editing. This is exacerbated by the fact that some of the early storylines that are important to the overall setup diverge wildly from the main plot, ending up in places that have nothing to do with the impending nuclear war. These side threads are entertaining, but I remain puzzled as to why some were included. And finally, although I appreciate Follett going out of his way to create strong, three-dimensional female characters, his emphasis on their love lives seems out of place in a novel about international intrigue and, frankly, kind of irritated me — not enough for me to pan the book, but certainly enough to solidify my four-star rating.

Overall, Never is another strong entry in Follett's ever-expanding catalog — one that's sure to appeal to his legion of fans. It's also a book that is likely to haunt readers long after they turn the last page, given its all-too-realistic premise. Book groups willing to tackle a doorstopper will certainly find many interesting avenues of discussion here.

Reviewed by Kim Kovacs

New York Times
Never isn't always a subtle book — there's a Republican politician who uses the phrase "bad hombre" — and a subplot about Pauline Green, the U.S. president, watching her marriage implode feels overcrowded. (A greater focus on South Korea's president, who makes a few globally significant decisions, would have been welcome.) But as climate change threatens to increase political unrest, Follett neatly dramatizes the growing danger with references to famine in North Korea and lakes drying out in Chad.

The Washington Post
Urgent and fiercely compelling ... Never is first-rate entertainment that has something important to say. It deserves the popular success it will almost certainly achieve.

Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
A complex, scary thriller that feels too plausible for comfort...[T]hat's Follett: You'll be so absorbed in the story threads that you'll follow them anywhere—and you'll suddenly realize you've read hundreds of pages. On one level, it's great entertainment; on another, a window into a sobering possibility.

Publishers Weekly (starred review)
In this terrific international thriller from MWA Grand Master Follett, President Pauline Green, a moderate Republican who's up for reelection, must contend for the nomination with far-right Sen. James Moore, whose macho talk appeals to many Republican voters...This is a powerful, commanding performance from one of the top writers in the genre.

Absolutely compelling...A smart, scary, and all-too-plausible thriller.

Author Blurb Lawrence H. Summers, former U.S. Treasury Secretary
A compelling story, and only too realistic.

Write your own review

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by Barry J
As I titled this book review it just is is unbelievable. Follett, whose works I previously adored, did a horrible job. He makes everyone look like a fool. This type of book wasn't needed.

Rated 3 of 5 of 5 by B. Hoover
Follett’s Folly
Not Follet’s best, by far.

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The Republic of Chad

Shallow pools of Lake Chad with small boats and a child bending toward the waterMuch of Ken Follett's novel Never is set in present-day Chad, a landlocked nation located in north-central Africa. Officially known as The Republic of Chad, at 496,000 square miles, the country is the fifth largest on the continent.

Chad has a long and complex history; it's one of the areas scientists believe may have been the cradle of humanity. The 2001 discovery of a 6- to 7-million-year-old hominid skull, from a primate known as Sahelanthropus tchadensis, supports this theory. It's believed that modern humans began continuously inhabiting the area around Lake Chad starting roughly 10,000 years ago, and there's evidence of a trans-Saharan trade route running through this location from around 3000 BCE. In addition, archeological exploration has revealed walled cities built during that time. Between 700 and 900 CE, the Kanembu people gained prominence and established ironworks, and in approximately 1000 CE traders from West Africa introduced Islam, which became the dominant religion in the northern portion of the country.

The early population hunted, fished and grew crops. They were largely tribal, living in small villages with local governments. Warfare was common, particularly in the border area between the well-organized Muslims in the north and the poorer villages in the south; northerners often attacked the south to gain slaves. From the 1400s through the 1800s, the territory of Chad was ruled by various different empires, including the Kamen-Bornu, Baguirmi and Ouaddai.

Rabah Zubair Fadlallah (1840-1900 CE) was born a slave in North Chad, but eventually became a warlord and slave trader himself, gaining enough power to be considered the ruler of this region. During his reign, France sent expeditionary forces to the area and laid claim. Fadlallah marshaled an army against them but was defeated and beheaded by the French. Today he's considered a hero by many for his resistance to French colonization.

Once obtained, the French largely ignored Chad; no investment was made in its infrastructure or in developing its economy. In addition, its citizens were forced into the French army and unpaid labor was often mandated. French colonial laws allowed all people to be pressed into service in the case of an "emergency," and since those enforcing the laws were largely corrupt tribal leaders who had gained power by collaborating with the French, much of the country's population was effectively enslaved.

The worst of the abuses ended after World War II, which left France too weak to continue supporting the colony in any capacity. Forced labor was abolished and political parties emerged. There were two major factions: the Chadian Democratic Union (UDT) which catered to Muslims in the north and the Chadian Progressive Party (PPT) which was backed primarily by those in the south. Elections were held in 1959 and the PPT won an overwhelming victory. On August 11, 1960, Chad declared independence from France. This did not mean democracy had come to Chad, however; its government since has largely been controlled by dictatorial leaders. The country's fifth president, Idriss Déby Itno, staged a coup in 1990 to gain the office, which he held until he was killed fighting rebel forces in April 2021. Rather than hold new elections as required by the country's constitution, the military dissolved the government and established a transitional council to govern for an 18-month period. The head of this military tribunal is Mahamat Idriss Déby, who is Idriss Déby Itno's son.

Chad's boundaries were set rather arbitrarily by France, and there are no defining geographical features that mark its borders. More than half the country's landmass extends into the Sahara Desert, an extremely arid region with little vegetation, comprised of dunes and plateaus.

Lake Chad is located on the western edge of the nation, in what's known as the Sahel – a grassy area of open steppe that encompasses much of the central portion of the country. The lake, a former inland sea, is believed to have covered approximately 390,000 square miles in 5000 BCE. It is under 600 square miles now, and is believed to have shrunk by 95% from the 1960s to the late 1990s. Climate change is partially to blame, but the lake has also been depleted by the population's reliance on its tributaries to water crops. Most of the country's large animals (elephants, giraffes, lions, etc.) live in the Sahel region, although their numbers are in decline due to habitat loss and poaching.

Chad has a relatively small population, with an average of just 20 people per square mile. It's also a very young population; the life expectancy is below 50 years of age (which is comparable to that of its neighbors but nowhere near the world average of 72.6 years) and half of its residents are under the age of 15. Primary causes of death are lower respiratory infection, malaria and HIV/AIDS. It also has one of the highest levels of hunger in the world. According to the World Food Programme, "66.2 percent of its population of 15.5 million live in severe poverty. It is ranked 187th out of 189 countries in the 2019 Human Development Index. Conflict and the climate crisis exacerbate hunger and poverty in Chad."

The country's official languages are French and Arabic, although over 100 are spoken across the region. Education is lacking, with fewer than half of school-aged children enrolled, and only about 20% of the populace lives in a city. More than half are Muslim, especially in the north and eastern parts of the country, and polygamy is common (more than 40% of Chadian women live in a polygamous household).

Most people continue to support themselves through agriculture, and until production of oil began in 2003, cotton, cattle and fish were the country's biggest exports (oil has since become Chad's most valuable commodity). Nevertheless, Chad relies heavily on foreign assistance, with funds received from other countries generally exceeding what it makes exporting goods.

Lake Chad in 2017, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Filed under Places, Cultures & Identities

By Kim Kovacs

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