Historical fiction doesn’t get much more ambitious than the Century Trilogy, Ken Follett’s attempt at telling the story of the 20th century. He does so by following five families—one American, one English, one Welsh, one German, and one Russian—over the course of several generations. Fall of Giants, the first book, focuses on World War I; Winter of the World, the sequel, covers World War II; and Edge of Eternity, the finale, spans the ‘60s to the fall of the Berlin Wall.
It’s an approach that puts history front and center; Follett’s fiction is generally a servant of the facts, rather than the other way around. And his facts are good—many of the characters are government insiders, positioned to be aware of and even involved in major events. (For example, the English patriarch is instrumental in cracking Germany’s infamous Zimmermann telegram to Mexico, which proposed an alliance between the two countries if the United States entered World War I against Germany.)
But too often, the characters are obviously playing second fiddle, their dialogue stuffed with exposition and politics inserted to explain what’s happening on the world stage. I also wish Follett had exchanged one of the British families for a non-white, non-Western perspective. (From China? India? South Africa? Decolonization, a fundamental paradigm shift in the global order, gets short shrift for a series whose title purports to chronicle landmarks of the 20th century.)
Even so, the amount of ground Follett covers is impressive, and he takes pains to create sympathetic characters for each of his chosen nationalities; some of the most admirable protagonists are Germans and Russians who resist their totalitarian governments despite horrible consequences. I also appreciated the balance in the third book, in which Follett contrasts the shortcomings of Soviet Russia against the hypocritically slow advance of civil rights in the United States.
And there’s a certain appeal to a writing style that prefers economy over eloquence. For instance, most authors would distinguish speakers by preceding their dialogue with (often irrelevant) stage directions:
Daisy shook her head. “That’s not going to work.”
Lloyd shrugged and looked at the ceiling. “So what would you suggest?”
Follett often opts for just name, verb, and colon:
Daisy said: “That’s not going to work.”
Lloyd asked: “So what would you suggest?”
No style points, but no nonsense either. The same could be said for the Century Trilogy as a whole, a worthwhile read for anyone who likes their historical fiction heavy on the “historical.”
For more reviews like this one, sign up for Nick’s monthly newsletter.