On the day King George V was crowned at Westminster Abbey in London, Billy Williams went down the pit in Aberowen, South Wales. – from Fall of Giants, opening sentence –
The Fall of Giants is the first book in The Century Trilogy by Ken Follett (the second book in the trilogy, Winter of the World, was just released this month). Covering the years between 1911 and 1924, it is a sweeping historical saga introducing five interrelated families from America, Germany, Russia, England and Wales. Follett did a huge amount of research for this novel and it shows. Dozens of real historical characters appear in the nearly 1000 pages of the book which explores such historical events as WWI, the Russian Revolution, and Women’s Suffrage.
Some of my favorite fictional characters in this chunkster were the women. Maud Fitzherbert is a woman of wealth who is fighting for women’s rights when she finds herself falling in love with a spy in the German embassy in London. Maud is an intelligent, driven woman who knows what she wants. Balancing her secret affair with her duties as the sister of an Earl who is deeply enmeshed in politics, is a challenge Maud confronts for much of the book.
Maud’s housekeeper, Ethyl Williams, comes from a poor Welsh mining family…but she has aspirations far above her birthright. Ethyl quickly became one of my favorite characters as she grew into a strong, politically active young woman.
The male characters in the book are no less captivating. Ethyl’s brother, Billy, takes a central role in the novel as he too rises above his station after going to war overseas. The Russian brothers, Lev and Grigori Peshkov, represent both the immigrant challenges that new Americans faced, as well as the revolutionary spirit in Russia which launched the Bolshevik Revolution. Gus DeWar, an American law student, gives readers a glimpse into the White House and the personality behind President Woodrow Wilson.
I should mention that Follett provides a detailed character list at the front of the novel to help readers keep track of both fictional and historical characters. But, it demonstrates Follett’s effectiveness as an author that I did not find myself needing to reference this list once I was about 100 pages into the book.
Follett juggles his multiple characters and story lines brilliantly through alternating points of view. The novel re-creates the battles of WWI including the horrible trench warfare and the lack of food and supplies which the troops faced. Despite its bulk, I never found the story lines lagging. Follett’s sense of pace and drama are well-honed and speak to his popularity as a novelist.
Fall of Giants provides readers a detailed look at the policies and governments which led us into WWI, as well as the factors which led thousands of Russians to rise up against the tsar and wealthy landowners. The sections on women’s suffrage were slimmer, but no less enlightening. Historically accurate, Fall of Giants also entertains by balancing the historical facts with terrific fictional plots and character interactions.
I thoroughly enjoyed this family and historical saga and purchased the second book in the trilogy last week. I hope to get to it before the year ends.
Readers who love historical fiction and don’t mind carting around a doorstopper, will want to read this novel…but, I warn you, once you have, you will want to read the rest of the books, too.
Have you read this book? The Chunky Book Club is discussing it beginning September 15th, 2012 and continuing indefinitely. Visit this post on the Chunkster Challenge Reading blog to join us!