When I hear “This book is a classic” I usually think of a really long, somewhat boring novel, which I know I have to read because it possesses enormous literary qualities (most of the times). All we now perceive as “classic literature” is written by longly dead writers, who are ultimately said to be genius. But what happens when something so brilliant, so interesting, so provoking, and so well written appears and the author is still well living. The novel has been out for only a couple of years yet you read it and you feel it is going to be read 100 years from now. I had this feeling (as many others did) when I read Ken Follet’s masterpiece Fall of Giants. For quite a long time I haven’t read something that makes me stay up until my eyes close, that makes me run after classes in order to finish “that one chapter” and that takes my breath away in wondering what will happen next.
What makes Ken Follet so interesting and so easy to read are undoubtedly his qualities of a story teller. The British-born author takes the difficult (and somewhat boring) subject of WWI and turns it into an exciting and compelling tale of greed and pride, of love and prejudice, of war and peace. Indeed, Fall of Giants is a magnificent historical masterpiece. It encompasses the years before the war, the events that lead to its outbreak, the actual fighting, the peace, and the consequences for all the big nations involved in it. Follet describes this important time of the 21st century through the destiny of 5 interrelated families. The British aristocracy in the face of Fitz, his Russian wife, and his emancipated young sister Mod, who fights for the equality of women. The Welsh – a poor family, in which the men earn their living in the mines, while the women are predestined to be servants of the wealthy. The American Gus Dewar, who pursues a career in the office of president Wilson. The two Russian brothers, who dream of escaping the poverty under the Tsarist rule and to sail to the dream land of America. And the Germans – the most controversial ones, the ones who supposedly caused the war with their greed and pride. The fates of these characters intermingle constantly, forming complex relationships spanning on three continents.
Follet easily travels from Moscow to Washington, from Berlin to London and to Paris, from the dirty mines of Cardiff to the White house and presents a thorough picture of the war and the way it affects the mighty and the ordinary. The Russian revolution, the fight for women rights, the outbreak of the war, the desire for territorial power, the whole historical background is perfectly researched and genuinely presented. Not in one time does the novel become boring or slow; it manages to keep the reader entangled in the story, compassionate to the characters, angry with the unfairness, and sorry for the victims. You find yourself constantly exclaiming: “It would have been so easy to prevent the war if…” However, the greed of the Germans, the pride of the British, the turbulences in Russia, and the quest for democracy in the US couldn’t in anyway coexist together. The war was inevitable; the end was disastrous. Follet ingeniously shows us the complexity of human relationships in an international concept, with diverse countries such as Germany, Russia, France, and US trying to coexist together.
The only weakness in Follet’s Fall of Giants is the presentation of some of the characters. While Walter, the german spy who falls in love with the emancipated Mod, Edith, the servant, who manages to break into the political world of London, Grigori and Lev, the two Russian brothers, who take totally different paths are extremely powerful, some other characters fail to grasp the attention. Gus, the American, feels somewhat shallow and incomplete. Fitz, the English lord cannot strike as the ultimate prejudiced aristocrat. Even Billy, Edith’s brother who goes from the mines to the battlefield seems a weak and unattractive character. I give Ken Follet that – creating a historical epos spanning through continents and social classes, it is often difficult to maintain the completeness of your characters. Still, this weakness in representation ruins a bit the overall expression of the novel.
Nevertheless, Fall of Giants is certainly predestined to become a classic. This is only the first book of the planned trilogy, that is going to follow further the destinies of these five families in the turbulently changing environment of the 21st century. I value this book because it objectively shows how and why we came to WWI without pointing fingers or blaming. The Germans, the British, the Americans, the French, the Russians, the Asians, all of them had their part in the outbreak of the war; and all of them bore the consequences. The mighty fall, the ordinary die, and the world changes. From our point of view now, we know that this was just the beginning. WWI and the peace afterwards didn’t solve the issues. I look forward to Follet’s second and third books, which will explore the subsequent years and hopefully the Second World War, which is by far much more interesting and controversial. I sincerely believe Mr Follet has the power to create a trilogy that will be long given as an example of a strong and compelling historical epos.