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Saturday, April 06, 2013

Review of Ken Follett's Fall of Giants

Ken Follett likes to write about strong, independent-minded women, and about intelligent men attempting to outmaneuver their hidebound peers. We find these types again in this novel of World War I. In the largely fictional setting of Pillars of the Earth and World Without End, these characters had room to maneuver, and their resourcefulness was often rewarded with success. Given the historical constraints of a World War I setting, Follett could not do quite as well by the characters in Fall of Giants -- which made the book somewhat more depressing. Reading it, I was momentarily distracted by fancies of where the story could have gone if Follett had pursued an alternate history a la Inglorious Basterds, and allowed one or another of his characters to save the away and avert disaster.

But that fantasy faded quickly -- because Follett shows, step by step, why disaster was not, in fact, averted. We see, from multiple points of view, the logic, the rational calculations, that led each of the nations inexorably toward war. It is a sobering experience. One cannot easily assure oneself, afterward, that one would have found a different path. At the same time, various characters are trying desperately to do just that, and Follett manages to make the reader hope they will succeed, even while knowing that any such hope is in vain.

But then, around mid-book, Follett starts spending much more time dwelling on who is having ill-advised sex, or not having desired sex, with whom -- and the book started to lose me. (One could argue that historical fiction covering this period should enlighten younger readers about how seriously people in the early 20th Century took premarital chastity (for women) and marital fidelity (for both sexes, to some extent) -- but I doubt many of Follett's readers are entirely ignorant of the mores of the time.) I have nothing against romantic entanglements in fiction, but something about the transition didn't work well for me.

Follett's focus does eventually return to the war, and related events such as the women's suffrage movement in Britain and run-up to the Russian Revolution. I learned quite a lot. And I did care what happened to the characters -- but less than I might have, if the original seamless blend of individual stories and worldwide events had continued throughout.

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