Tuesday, February 28, 2012
Fall of Giants
Author: Ken Follett
Genre: Historical Fiction
Ken Follett is a giant himself- with books like World Without End and The Pillars of the Earth behind him, he could write children's books for the rest of his life and still be read. Fall of Giants does not disappoint. In classic Follett style, he lays out a historical context and creates characters within it that capture our hearts.
The book begins in the glory days before World War I, on the day of George V's coronation in Westminster Abbey. That's only peripherally important to us, as the readers, though: that same day, Billy Williams goes down into the coal pit in Aberowen, Wales. Follett's depiction of a tiny, early 20th century mining town is captivating and evocative; every detail is as vividly accurate as usual, bringing every essence of the miners' desperately ordinary lives to bright color.
Fall of Giants focuses its story on eight incredibly different individuals-- Billy and Ethel Williams from Aberowen, the English nobility Maud and Fitz Fitzherbert, the German dignitary Walter von Ulrich, the Russian peasant brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov, and the American political aide Gus Dewar. Each of them brings a different perspective to the torrent of disaster that is the oncoming World War, and Follett brings their doubts, worries, and fears to life in strikingly human situations.
The book moves forward in sections of time, which is an interesting change from the usual chapter-by-chapter setup for books. Follett titles a chapter with the date that it occurs, such as "July 1914", and under that numbers sections that either alternate between characters or time on the same character. With this setup, we don't forget about characters in the gaps between their segments, and we aren't constantly flip-flopped between vignettes of the different times and places.
However, the book has failings as well. Follett, while gripping and evocative, has some sort of visceral fascination with the taboo in time-period cultures, and gleefully describes it to awkward readers. In one scene, he describes a certain woman giving a man a surreptitious handjob in the back row of an opera. In the first chapter, he describes Billy's woe at his poor sexual development. These details are part of the reality of his characters, but there are copious amounts of them, and could be limited without being too terribly missed.
Some of the sentences in Fall of Giants seem a little choppy as well. As the book is told in third person, the necessity for simple language for simple characters is eliminated, but in some of the cases, it remains. At one point during a section of Billy's story, I was horrified to be reminded of that travesty scribbled by Stephanie Meyer in a paragraph that plodded, "Billy did this. Billy did that. Billy wasn't sure of this." It happens to the best of us, but editing can usually catch most of it.
Despite some small failings, Fall of Giants is still a wonderfully intimate, moving depiction of the true human effect of World War I. We see the desperation of friends caught between warring nations, the destruction wrought on families and cities, and the truly uncontrollable nature of human nature in politics. At the end, we see Germany moving toward the desperation that placed Hitler in power, and the chaos wrought on Russia by its own revolution. Fortunately, this is only the first in the new Century trilogy, so more of this gripping series is yet to come.
Also in classic Follett style, Fall of Giants is a fantastically long read-- around 1000 pages-- that doesn't feel all that long. I ripped through that thing in about 10 days, reading at breakfast, dinner, and coffee. This book is pretty new, so it's pretty pricey, but definitely worth your time. My library had a copy, but if yours doesn't, see if you can get it on your Kindle. It's $18.99 on the Kindle, which seems expensive, but the hardback in real life is $34.00, so suck it up and get the eBook. If you can find the paperback- which I could not- it's supposed to be $16.50, so that's a better buy if you can. However, I will probably read this book again, so I'd like to have it on hardback someday if it gets cheaper. I'll keep my eyes glued to the clearance shelf at B&N.
That's all for me today. As always, keep reading, you pageturners.