Tackling World War I: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

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Last night I finished reading Ken Follett’s Fall of Giants before going to bed. I devoured his book Pillars of the Earth a few years ago over a winter break, and have had my eye on this book ever since. I have always been interested in 20th century history, and I am looking forward to seeing what he does in the next two books of his trilogy.  I was also  particularly interested in this book now because I wanted to see how an author approaches and writes about such a monstrous topic as World War I, since I might be dealing with that era in my story that I have mentioned before. (Side note – the scene that I have in that post looks very different now, and will probably look very different in the future as well). I have not studied or looked into World War I in detail since studying it in History class in high school, and I was looking forward to revisiting that era, and to see what Ken Follett did as a writer to transport his reader to the early 20th century. i also want to read his second book, Winter of the World, which came out this September.

Fall of Giants follows the story of a number of Europeans at the beginning of the 20th century. Follett’s style when it comes to historical novels is to create a number of fictional families and follow their heritage through the years. He focuses specifically on Britain, Germany, Russia, and American characters, which will easily take him right through to the end of the 20th century.

As I said before, I was particularly paying attention to the way that Follett talked about, and recreated World War I. Fall of Giants in quite the tome of a book, and Follett makes sure to at least touch on every element of a most internationally complex era. I learned things about World War I that I had not known before, and although I am not a history buff I do enjoy the subject. I cannot imagine the research that went into writing this book.

What makes Follett’s world so real is the detail and personable characters that he puts into it. Follett has a variety of characters ranging from wealthy Brits and Americans to servants, coal miners, and Russian activists. Through these characters he can give his readers a first hand look into the complication of events leading up to the war,  The Battle of the Somme, The Russian Revolution, Woodrow Wilson’s White House, or the Paris Peace Conference. It wouldn’t surprise me if Fall of Giants was the most comprehensive historical novel of the early 1900’s out there today. The international atmosphere of the early 1900’s is highlighted from the beginning of the book through wealthy multinational dinner parties in fancy manor houses where international politics are the main conversation topic. After all, most of the monarchs of Europe at this time were all cousins, and descendants from Queen Victoria. Follett discusses this fact verbatim, but also mirrors this international intimacy through the relationships of his characters, and their alternating viewpoints and plot lines. All the characters keep on running into one another whether it is on the streets of London or in the battlefield, which gives the reader the sense that although the world is at war, it is a very small world to begin with. The relationships between the characters also lighten the tone of this highly political novel, making it two parts international politics, one part soap opera drama.

I thought that at times the pacing of the novel could be changed, although of course that is difficult to deal with when the novel is based so firmly in historical events. In terms of the battle scenes, Follett writes it so that almost every male character goes off to war at the same time and then comes home at the same time as well. This makes certain sections of the novel saturated with either war or home life, and could make the reader question the likelihood of this happening – that every male character would be on the exact same schedule. It also made the scenes of war after their respective times at home seem slow. Of course, there was an inordinate amount of fighting during World War I, but I would have liked to see some fighting interspersed with some home life rather than everyone being in the same place at once.

Despite that small detail, I really enjoyed The Fall of Giants, and am hugely impressed with what Ken Follett has managed to put together. He has also set himself up nicely for Winter of the World by introducing the problems that lead into World War II at the end of the novel. If you view Fall of Giants as a highly politicized fictional story of the era, and Downton Abbey as a much more domestic fictional story of the era, I am aiming for my story line (the parts of it that do take place in the early 20th century that is) to be somewhere in the middle – hopefully. Still, I am very glad to have read this novel, both from a research point of view and one of just looking for a good book to read. I highly recommend it to history buffs and readers a like, and I am looking forward to seeing how Ken Follett recreates the rest of the 20th century.

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6 thoughts on “Tackling World War I: Fall of Giants by Ken Follett

  1. Pingback: Time Travel: Choose Your Own Adventure | goodbookscents

  2. Hi Clare – thanks for an insightful review of this book. I haven’t read it yet, but on the basis of your comments I think I might. My local writers group is considering a project to document our town’s (Leighton Buzzard) involvement in WWI, so this is a timely reminder that I need to do more to read myself into the mindset. Both my grandfathers served in northern France but never spoke about their experiences to the family, of course.
    Thanks for liking my blog about favourite reading places. I note that you finished reading Ken Follett before going to bed…

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  4. Pingback: Winter of the World: The Second World War | goodbookscents

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