Renowned as both a writer of thrillers and historical novels, Ken Follett burst onto the larger American literary scene in 2007 when Oprah selected The Pillars of the Earth (1989) as one of her book club titles for 2007. It was in 2007 that Follett published the long-awaited sequel to this work: World Without End. Both set in England during the Middle Ages, the historical epics followed the lives of nobles and peasants, priors and builders, and knights and merchants in the shadow of a cathedral town.
Although his earlier two books could easily be considered daunting, Follett aims higher still with his Century Trilogy. Whereas The Pillars of The Earth and World Without End are only tangentially related, set in same location almost 160 years apart, the Century Trilogy follows successive generations of fives families from the 1910s through the Cold War.
Follett sets the stage with Fall of Giants, which introduces readers to the aristocratic Von Ulrichs (German) and Fitzherberts (English), the Dewers, a family of the American gentry, and the working class Williamses (Welsh) and Peshkovs (Russian). Fall of Giants writ large is about the events that preceded, encompassed, and followed World War I. Follett lays bare the broad strokes of this period in history with a grace and clarity that will delight both the historical neophyte and the period expert. Accurate and precise, Follett’s work is a digestible history lesson entangled in an engaging fictional narrative.
Building detailed, engaging universes entrenched in historical reality and flawed, but entirely human, characters that one cannot help but love are the two places where Follett excels far beyond the norm for an historical fiction writer and epic storyteller. To put Follett’s skill in perspective, consider George R.R. Martin, whose equally long saga treats an expansive cast of characters. While Martin’s books begin to drag as the reader’s interest dwindles to a select coterie of characters, all of Follett’s heroes and heroines remain engaging for all two-thousand pages of his first two books–no small feat!
From the politically-minded feminist Lady Maud Fitzherbert and her outrageously backward sister-in-law the Russian Princess Bea, to the spunky housemaid turned housekeeper Ethel Williams and the smooth, likeable rogue Lev Peshkov, a diverse crew of characters dance through the pages of Fall of Giants with an impressive amount of grace and aplomb.
Follett’s character development and sense of plotting are so solid that one cannot help but develop a strong emotional investment in all of his heroes and heroines as they soldier on through the heartbreak of World War I and, later, World War II in Winter of the World.
While Fall of Giants was undoubtedly an impressive masterwork, Follett really hits his stride in Winter of the World. More so than in the first book of the series, Follett conveys the gravity and hardships of this period in history with chilling detail and emotion. It is gratifying to follow the characters from Fall of Giants as they become parents and secondary players as their children take the fore. The social climbing, ambulance-driving Daisy Peshkov, Carla von Ulrich, the daughter of a fallen aristocrat who works as a nurse and subversive in Nazi Germany, and the cunning spy handler Volodya Peshkov are only part of a cast of highly inventive characters that grow and mature as the story progresses.
Due to the nature of twentieth-century history and Follett’s choice in homelands for his respective characters, Winter of the World will surely strike readers as more complex than Fall of Giants. From Stalinist Russia, Hitler’s Germany, Petanist France, and Churchill’s England to the bombing of Pearl Harbor and the advent of nuclear bombs, Follett weaves his plot and his characters through this high tension period of history without ever failing to forget the intriguing details that bring his scenes to life.
All in all, the Century Trilogy is off to a very strong start. I will be one of the first in line for a copy of Edge of Eternity in late 2014!