Fall of Giants, by Ken Follett

This is the first Ken Follett book I’ve read. Everyone seemed to be raving about Pillars of the Earth last year, and I didn’t read it, but after I gave my dad  Fall of  Giants for his birthday I decided to read it myself (on the e-reader, to spare wrist strain — it’s a hefty tome!) and that was a good decision.

Let’s be clear first about that pesky distinction between commercial and literary fiction: this is clearly commercial fiction. When it comes to historical fiction, Fall of Giants doesn’t have anything like the literary ambition of a book like Wolf Hall or The Book of Negroes.  There is no particular beauty to the language and absolutely no subtlety to the characterization: characters do and say exactly what they mean, and in case you miss it, the narrator will helpfully tell you what they’re feeling. This is simply, straightforward storytelling, and if you don’t expect Follett to deliver more than he promises, you’ll enjoy this World War One epic, which is the first in a planned trilogy.

Fall of Giants follows several families in different countries — Britain, Germany, Russia, the U.S. — through the years leading up to the war, the war itself, and then the immediate aftermath.  Although the characterization is quite superficial, the book is long enough and the events gripping enough that you do get to care about the characters and what happens to them. It’s fascinating to see the war from the point of view of people in several different countries, and also from the point of view of people of different social classes.

Class is an important theme in this novel, and we get to see how the war years challenged so much of what was taken for granted about class and social status.  The novel ends in the early 1920s, as one Russian character who started out penniless is now in a position of power in the new Communist government — but starting to realize the new regime is, in its way, as brutal and corrupt as the old czarist system. Meanwhile, two similarly-destitute characters on the British scene are taking their seats for the first time as MPs in Britain’s first Labour government, leaving the reader with a clear sense that the old order has changed forever.

This was a really good book to read while I’m writing a book of my own set in the early 20th century, and also teaching World War One to my World History students. When I finished Fall of Giants, I didn’t realize it was the first of a trilogy, but noted that the ending resolved many plot threads but also left many things open (and that most of the main characters had children by the end of WWI, and that there were many comments about the possibility of their children having to fight another war in the future … clear signs that a multigenerational saga is in progress!). I will definitely read the others in the series.

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