Book Review: Fall of Giants

Follett, Ken.  Fall of Giants.  NY: Dutton, 2010. 985 pages.

Fall of Giants is the first book in Ken Follett’s new Century Trilogy.  It follows five families through the First World War: each of them American, British, Welsh, German, and Russian.  This book is basically Follet trying to write another gigantic historical novel that rivals his medieval stories Pillars of the Earth and World Without End.  This is my seventh Ken Follett, but the first one I’ve read since becoming an editor, so I don’t know if he’s done this in his other books, but this is what stuck out to me about Fall of Giants.

Follett is very patronizing in this historical fiction.  He assumes that you have absoluetly no idea what happened in WWI and then puts his main characters in the way of important political leaders such as Woodrow Wilson, Lloyd George, and Kaiser Wilhelm II so that they can discuss everything that happens at great length.  So for a person who knows all about WWI, this book is going to get a bit tedious, because the main goal of all the central characters is to talk about the war and the discions of the major world leaders.  What it also does for me is dehumanize the characters.  Sure, I understand that the war was at the foremost of everybody’s minds and that they talked about it at lot.  Completely understandable. But I don’t like how all the characters do is pop in, have a great political debate, and then pop back out.  Follett’s only way of giving the characters depth is by giving each of them a romantic interest, and then throughout the book have each of them say, “Oh, if only I could be with my true love!” and then go back to what they were doing.

My favorite character in all these 900+ pages was Grigori Peshkov from St. Petersburg, Russia.  I didn’t know that much about Russia before so I liked the history lesson as told from the viewpoint of a Russian middle-class worker.  Follett follows Grigori as he helps his brother out of scrapes, saves a peasant woman from the police, and fails to avoid getting conscripted into the army.  There were two problems with Grigori’s plotline, however.  One, for the first five hundred pages or so, there were very few scenes about him, so I could hardly keep up with what he was doing, and then, later when he became a major revolutionary and then a comrade in the Red Army, it became too focused on his relationship with Lenin for me to care about him.  Yeah, I still wanted to know the fate of Russia, but I couldn’t see it through Grigori’s impoverished eyes anymore.  It was less about a man struggling with his lot in life and more about watching Lenin debate with other soviets over how they should manipulate people.

Follett got it right that people want to stick with a specific character to sympathize with a general situation.  But what I don’t think he did right was stick these specific people is positions of power.  We want to see the boys in the trenches, not the men back in the White House calling the shots.

All that to say, I really did like the book, and if you like Ken Follet and/or historical fiction, you will like it too.  I just think it could have been done a little better.  And in fewer pages.

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4 Responses to Book Review: Fall of Giants

  1. Mara says:

    As one who does not know my history, I like that Follett talks down a bit and makes it simple.
    As to the characters all being up high and in the know: Follett has written plenty of books about small parts of war and men in trenches. That was not the aim of this trilogy. The point was to show a worldwide view of the war rather than a particular incident. That is why he has five main families from different countries and he placed his characters in those positions close to political names because that is the part of the story that Follett is sharing.
    Also you may recall that nearly every main male character did in fact go to war and did not just talk about it in safe places.

  2. Robert M says:

    Mara said what I wanted to share, and better than I could have done. I forgive some underdevelopment of character in historical fiction because I, too, want to learn more about the history made more memorable by hanging it loosley on human skeletons. WW Uno is not my forte, and is rather a gap in my knowledge base, so I will welcome the lessons from those in the know who rendered world-impacting decisions at the most strategic levels. James A. Michener wrote similarly; that’s why I could easily devour “Alaska,” which was not devoid of character, but certainly weak, and come away with exciting details for which I had long hungered. I look forward to this Follett.

  3. Hmmm…..interesting variation of viewpoints here. Jessie, you do a good job of presenting your honest opinion of the book, while still keeping me interested enough in it that I might consider reading it. I love Pillars of the Earth and am anticipating reading the sequel this year. Follett’s writing has kept me entertained since high school.

    But.

    Especially in Pillars, the humanity of his characters drove the story. The historical stuff was fascinating, sure — but it was a backdrop and didn’t obscure the foreground of the characters. From what you’re saying about this WWI story, Follett lets the historical background obtrude and overshadow the characters. That’s the kind of writing I have little interest in.

    If I can’t connect with the characters (and I will always connect with the boys in the trenches better than I will with the politicians at the desks), I get bored. If the characters are weak, that turns the historical fiction novel into little more than a textbook for me — and those put me to sleep in high school. 😉

    I’m willing to give the book a chance, though. After all, it *is* Follett.

  4. jessie says:

    Mara and Dad, good points all, and I think you are correct. But like Courtney, I feel that humanity drives the story, and I wish this book had been a little more like Follett’s others when it comes to characterization.