File this one under sweeping epic multi-generational historical sagas. It is a chunky book with nearly 1000 jam-packed pages of mostly unputdownable drama and excitement. Characters to love and loathe and become so involved with that when you surface for air you forget just where you are and what you should be doing (because when you get to that point of no return you will likely ignore all your other tasks at hand). Fall of Giants by Ken Follett is the first of three books known as The Century Trilogy. It opens in 1911 and ends in 1924, and this is a story where you truly feel you have been places and done things. I will admit that I did start this one some time ago and then hit a snag on the WWI battlefields (thanks to a particularly annoying character), but once I pushed past that it was all serious coasting to the end. One thing you can say about Ken Follett, he knows how to tell a "thumping good story".
So much is packed into these pages that it would be impossible to try and give you a plot summation, but I can at least tell you about some of the various characters and their families. There is a helpful cast of characters listing at the front of the book which is five pages long, but don't let that worry you. I had little problem keeping everyone straight once the story started rolling. There is a lot of interaction between the groups of people even though the story moves from Wales to London to the French battlefields to Germany and German battlefields, all the way to Russia and then across the Atlantic to America. Whoosh. Yes, with such a varied cast Follett manages to squeeze in most of the major early 20th century wars and revolutions. And no one is ignored from peasants to Lords and ladies.
It begins in Wales with the working class family of the Williams family. They are miners who work essentially for the Fitzherbert clan whose family seat is in Aberowen, South Wales. The daughter of the Williams family is a maid at the Great house and it won't be giving anything away to say she has an affair with the young Earl Fitzherbert. He is a pompous ass and is the man who annoyed me into letting the story languish for longer than it should have. I can let you imagine what comes of their affair and I will add that he, as an aristocrat, has married into a royal Russian family. So a link between Wales and Russia.
We might as well head over to Russia where we meet two brothers who are from a peasant family. The Peshkov brothers are orphaned young, the elder is intelligent and responsible and the younger handsome but corrupt and self serving. It's thanks to the Earl's wife's family that their own mother is killed during a demonstration. When the younger brother gets into trouble and must make a hasty getaway, it's thanks to his brother that he can emigrate to America. Unfortunately the peasants are dumped on the coast of Britain and guess where he ends up--Wales.
Eventually he does make his way to America where he gets involved in what is essentially a family of Russian mobsters. More paths cross and this time with a young American man rising through the political ranks working for the Wilson administration. Gus Dewar happened to be traveling in England and Wales on business where he meet the Earl and by extension the Williams family and has a run in with our Russian friend. Later in America they vie over the same woman.
Before the war the Fitzherbert family is on happy terms with the German Von Ulrich family and Lady Maud even has a love affair with Otto von Ulrich who is part of that same young crowd. Their love deepens and then war comes and they are wrenched apart. So, that is most of our main set of characters, though there are many others who fill up and add color to the background.
The story moves from place to place following the tides of war and revolution but with lots of extra detail thrown in--miner's strikes, women's suffrage, affairs, affairs with the enemies, affairs between classes, unplanned pregnancies, births, deaths, war wounds, executions of traitors, bloody revolutions, corruption and even at the end a little bootlegging, marriages, more strikes, political jockeying, Parliament runs and the promise for yet more exciting adventures with not only this generation but the next of the four or so families met in Fall of Giants.
I've already dipped into the second book of the trilogy, Winter of the World which picks up in 1933 with yet another war on the horizon. My favorite characters are Ethel Williams and her brother Billy, but I rather like Lady Maud who chooses love over respectability and money. I still find her brother Earl Fitzherbert particularly odious, and the Russian brother who ends up in America far too self-serving to be likable in a bad-boy sort of way. Their children will now come to the fore and I have met a few already. The second book promises to be just as good as the first and maybe even better. The third book, Edge of Eternity which takes the story all the way into the Cold War and beyond comes out in a mass market size edition in September, so it will be something good to look forward to this fall.
Pure, unadulterated fun and the perfect sort of story to completely immerse yourself in, particularly if you are in need of a little well-written and well-plotted escapism.