Ken Follett, Pt. 2: Still A Genius

Okay I just finished book #2 of The Century Trilogy (called Winter of the World) and book #6 of 2015. These books are just all at once massive and incredible and heavy and time consuming, so I’m a little behind on the 100 book goal but I’m not too worried about catching up. Plus it was more than worth it. Because Ken Follett. It’s just too much, I’m not even being dramatic. Ah he’s amazing and every time I finish a book by him (aka the two I’ve read) I feel equal parts exhaustion and this urgency to get my hands on another book he wrote because he’s such a gripping author.

So Winter of the World. Imagine a favorite series of yours. One of the best parts of reading and re reading books in a series – to me – is watching the characters that you’ve come to love over the course of one book develop and grow throughout the rest of the books. It’s like coming back to an old friend every time you read more of the series.

SO THEN, imagine that instead of reading about the same characters developing over the course of the series, you get to read about their children. It’s so, so, so, so, so genius and absorbing. Because when I read Fall of Giants, I fell in love hard with a lot of the characters. Follett’s characters are incredibly easy to relate to, and brave and lovable and real, so it’s not difficult to fall in love with them. Plus, the fact that these novels span the course of at least a decade and a half helps you develop complicated relationships with all the characters. You read all their mistakes, everything they’re proud of, things they thought inconsequential, or other things they gave great importance to. They all become well-rounded and it’s really hard to forget they aren’t real.

Ultimately meaning that in Fall of Giants, among all the war and chaos and intense political stuff, there’s obviously amazing romance stuff to drive the plot and make the characters even easier to relate to. So the characters are having babies left and right. As the reader, you think some variation of “I’m happy for them,” or “I am terrified for that baby,” but then you don’t give (or at least I didn’t give) a lot more thought to that baby. He or she could hardly be counted as a character, and didn’t really play a part in the plot unless the child served to draw two characters closer together, or drive some other conflict in the between the main adult characters.

This is all a very long-winded way of saying that it’s incredible to start the next book in a series, having to somewhat reacquaint yourself with the main characters. But I also found myself reading with this weirdly tender feeling that I already knew and loved (or hated) certain characters, simply because I remembered [cough cough, reading about] their mom or dad. Then of course, the reader is still getting information about the characters they came to know and love in the first book, just through the eyes of the younger generation of their children.

This provided some amazing dramatic irony at points, and some really heartwarming revisions and portrayals of the original cast as they age. Like everything I post about on this blog, I’m not sure if any of this will make sense unless you’ve read the book, but it was really so satisfying to read. At times, I did wish I was back in the heads of some of my favorite characters from Fall of Giants, I’m mostly referring to Ethel Lethwick-Williams, who will always be my hero and forever-fiction-girl-crush.

But by that same token, (perfect) Ethel had this son throughout most of Fall of Giants who was always sort of in the background, without a personality and mostly serving as a reminder of her passionate, illicit affair with a man way above her social class. So that was awesome to see him, Lloyd, becoming one of the main characters in Winter of the World, being as brilliant as Ethel had been in the previous novel. Ah. Seriously, Follett just gets it. Like, the human race, how to tell a story, history, all of it.

So I just ranted about his characters in a weird, abstract way, but he also does an amazing job of keeping every single historical event fascinating. I get that the political atmosphere before, during, and immediately after World War II was fascinating in all parts of the world. But it can’t be easy to write about it all in such a consistently interesting way. For example, he spends a lot of time going over nuclear bomb developments in the novel. I am so completely the opposite of a science person, but somehow he wrote about isotope separation and neutrons (or something) and I was still gripped and found myself staying up late so I could finish that chapter about physics. This is something that has never happened before in the history of my existence.

And not just that, but everything. It’s a testament to what a truly great writer Follett is when a battle scene can be as suspenseful as a military decoding scene, an adulterous sex scene, a concentration camp, and a Parliamentary meeting. I was never, ever disappointed when I started a new chapter and found out what character’s perspective I would read from, or what was going on in their life. It was all as gripping as the next chapter. He also offers really interesting insight to certain historical events from unique perspectives.

For example, (and maybe I’m displaying my historical naivete here, but oh well) I always just assumed that the majority of Germany during the WWII era were behind Nazism, and knew about Hitler’s mass executions and radical beliefs about Aryan supremacy. The way Follett tells it, a lot of Germans were, but even those devout Nazis weren’t necessarily aware of the brutal murders of innocent people. And even more Germans were actively resisting the Nazi movement. I just assumed that the rest of Europe was obviously against it, but that most Germans were on board. That just wasn’t the case, not only in this novel but also in factual history. So it’s always fun to have your entire perspective changed like that.

I know it’s historical fiction, but I do feel like reading these books has made me better informed. I wasn’t completely sure on the differences between Nazism, Communism, Fascism, etc. until I started this trilogy (again with historical naivete, sorry). Plus, it spurred me to research the historical accuracy of these events further, which I think can only be a good thing. I’ve always loved historical fiction, but I especially love Follett’s. It’s so dense and rich with accurate dates and even quotes from real historical characters, that reading these novels seems like a more entertaining, authentic history lesson.

My one complaint about this book: he uses the word “smooch” a lot. Maybe that was a ’30s – ’40s thing, but I dislike that word. Otherwise, so great and I can’t wait to read the third and final book (and then hopefully everything else Ken Follett has written ever.) ◊

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