In the epic tradition of Leon Uris's Trinity and James Clavell's Shogun comes Ken Follett's Fall of Giants, the first of a planned trilogy that will follow five families through the major historical moments of the 20th century. This is not a small book by any measure. Nearly 1,000 pages long, it explores World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the women's suffrage movement from the perspective of five different families from five different countries. Despite its length and complexity, Fall of Giants is a remarkably quick, absorbing, and thought provoking read.
The novel opens with young Billy and his first days "down the pit" in a Welsh coal mine. Billy is from poor Welsh stock, but his father, a union man, has kept the family dignified and respectable in their small community of Aberowen. Billy's older sister, Ethel, works in the great house belonging to the Fitzherberts, the landed gentry who own the land and mill in and around the town. What appears to be a soft opening to a massive novel is actually a blueprint for its plot and an introduction to a class system that will corrode to combustion by the story's end. Billy, Ethel, and their father represent the bottom rung of a society that is clamoring for respect and change, while the Fitzherberts represent an upper class that is blind to the needs of their workers and intent to preserve a lifestyle that is advantageous only to themselves. Follett takes this pattern and imprints it onto the other countries and families in the novel, giving the reader a full view of the social mechanisms at work during these turbulent times. This technique also presents a need for a grand cast of characters, which Follett creates with keen insight and intensity.
Follett's characters come alive as they interact with the epic events of their time, reminding the reader that the the best way to know history is to understand the people it impacted. Rather than puppets in front of a moving screen, his characters emerge as real people shaping and being shaped by the social and political movements that made history. Character dialogue and narrative explanation of historical events is seamlessly interwoven into the text, enabling Follett to progress the private lives of the characters and the advancement of history without falling into didacticism. By the end, the reader will have a working knowledge of World War I, the Russian Revolution, and the woman's suffrage movement, but Fall of Giants is not just about history.
Some of the most memorable parts of the novel happen in between historical events when the characters fall in love, meet after years of separation, or snub each other on the stair. Follett is ever aware that this is a novel, and though he gives history its due, he also tells a great story. What seems from the book jacket to be an unwieldy number of characters feels at the end to be just right. The characters are all connected, but the connections are smart, subtle, and do not stress the reader's suspension of disbelief.
Fall of Giants is enormously satisfying. With its sweeping plot, larger than life characters, and accurately presented history, it is a perfect example of great historical fiction. The only downside is that it is the first of a trilogy, and the second installment is not set to hit bookstores for a few more years. In the meantime, you may want to read this one a few times. It's just that good.
This review was originally published in October 2010, and has been updated for the August 2011 paperback release. Click here to go to this issue.
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