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Book Corner: The Century Trilogy

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Book reviews are back! Just so that Schmitt will stop nagging me. I’ll try compiling the reviews on a specific blog page, once I have futzed around with WordPress sufficiently. It’s been a while, yo. I read more than ever last year, and this year I upped my goal to finish 50 books. I am already done with 12 and it’s only February so I might have to up the goal again. I love books.

Today’s review is about the first two books of Ken Follett‘s Century Trilogy. Ken Follett is very popular in Germany, mostly for The Pillars of the Earth, a historical novel set in England in the 12th century, documenting the construction of a fictitious cathedral in South England. This book and Noah Gordon’s The Physician were absolute must-reads when I was a teenager, and I loved both of them. Germans loved Pillars so much that there’s a German TV mini-series, and even a board game and two card games.

The Century Trilogy are also historical novels, but Ken Follett has left the middle ages behind and went back to a period of time he’s written about before, 20th century war stories. The scope is certainly grander. They are a generational saga of different families in different countries, over the course of the 20th century. They are massive, with Fall of Giants having 985 pages in hardcover, and Winter of the World having 940 pages in hardcover. The final book will not be much different, I am sure.

fall-of-giantsFall of Giants is the first book, set in the years 1914 to 1919, covering events from just before the outbreak of the Great War until the Versailles Treaty and first hints of the consequences this treaty would have on further events. We have several distinct points of view: a Welsh working class family, and the family of their local nobility, the Fitzherberts. There’s the von Ulrich family, diplomats in Great Britain. Walter, the German diplomat, falls in love with Lady Maud before the war, but of course they are separated by the war. There’s Gus Dewar, an American aide to President Wilson. In Russia we have the brothers Grigori and Lev Peshkov, in the slums of St. Petersburg. One of them emigrates to the US where his life interferes with that of Gus Dewar, the other remains behind and rises against the Tsar in Lenin’s revolution. Throughout the book all those lives overlap. Sometimes the characters are a bit Mary Sue as one of them has the pivotal idea that will change the course of history, but I guess Follett had to do that to have any sort of explanation how the fictitious characters could be involved in history in the making.

The characters themselves are nothing outstanding. Aside from Ethel Williams who was my favorite, they’re all a bit flat. Especially Gus Dewar is a bit of a blank canvas, particularly boring. But the story lives and falls with the pace of historical events. Ken Follett cleverly picked all the right moments. It’s pretty much like reading a history book that is actually exciting, because even though the characters are flat, you care about them anyhow. I was particularly fascinated with the Russian chapters, as I have to admit to knowing very little about the October Revolution and the formation of the Soviet Union. It was quite fascinating to read.

I found it somewhat bothersome that a lot of time is wasted on depictions of sexual intercourse. I think my friend Chris described those quite perfectly.

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winter-of-the-worldWinter of the World continues the saga begun in Fall of Giants, with the events within happening in the years 1933 to 1949. Most of the characters from the first book are still here, but the focus has shifted to the following generation. The writing felt a bit formulaic this time round. There’s always a couple destined to be together. In the first book this was Lady Maud Fitzherbert and Walter von Ulrich. In this book it’s Daisy Peshkov, daughter to the now American scoundrel Lev Peshkov, and Lloyd Williams, son of Ethel Williams and Earl Fitzherbert. Woody Dewar was definitely pretty much a copy of his father in the first book, and Volodya’s chapters were a lot like Grigori’s, the Russian who supports Communism but has his doubts about the system. And so on. The characters are all still a bit flat, rather one-dimensional. They could have been so much more.

I have few quibbles aside from that. I probably liked Fall of Giants a little better because I previously had little knowledge about World War I. As a historical lesson, Winter of the World is wide-spread and covers just about every large-scale event that happened during WWII. From the rise of the Nazis to the war in Spain, to the Blitz over London, to Pearl Harbor and the Battle of Midway, to Hiroshima and the beginning of the nuclear arms race. It’s a massive book, it’s exciting to read, and it even picks up on stuff like homosexuality in the navy and the mass-rapes of the Red Army reaching Germany. I was surprised that he didn’t cover Stalingrad at all, but then, none of the characters on the Eastern Front really had reason to be at the battle that destroyed the Germans.

The cringeworthy sex is still in this book as well, but sometimes he fades to black. Thanks so much.

That said, I am looking forward to the concluding book which will come out later this year, focusing on events of the cold war from the 60s to the 80s, with the title Edge of Eternity.

As I enjoyed both books the same, with maybe a slight edge for Fall, I am scoring them at 4 stars.

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