Friday, October 19, 2012

Book review: Winter of the World, by Ken Follett

The second volume in Ken Follett’s Century Trilogy begins with a scene that aptly foreshadows its chilling title. The year is 1933. Hitler has just been made chancellor, and Germans are pondering how to react. Over breakfast with her family at their Berlin home, native Englishwoman Maud von Ulrich defends the outspoken stance she took in her last magazine column. "What would life be like for our children if Germany became a Fascist state?" she argues.

Her husband, Walter, a member of the Reichstag, prefers a less risky approach to the Nazi threat, while son Erik disagrees: "But the Aryan race must be superior – we rule the world!"

It’s all rather ominous – and obvious. Follett’s no-nonsense style can lack subtlety at times, but he more than makes up for it with his firm grasp of history and ability to juggle multiple story strands, each as attention-grabbing as the last. In great part, he meets the high standard set by the mega-bestselling Fall of Giants. Although its outline never hides too deeply beneath the plot, Winter of the World is another accomplished and consistently entertaining feat.

In this panoramic epic spanning 16 years, from the Depression through the Cold War, diverse characters from around the globe are caught up in major (and some minor) historical dramas. From protests in German streets to the London Blitz to the Manhattan Project’s inner workings, the five families from the first book – Welsh, English, Russian, German, and American – get even further entangled. The focus has moved ahead to a new generation. Some children pursue the same paths as their parents, and new heroes and heroines emerge.

Each fights his or her own battle where it happens, be it in the boardrooms of Washington, D.C., in the air over Midway Island or much closer to home. In keeping with reality, one rarely gets to choose. As Carla von Ulrich, daughter of Maud and Walter, does her courageous utmost to halt Nazi atrocities, Lloyd Williams, the Cambridge-educated illegitimate son of a housemaid-turned-MP, heads to Spain during its civil war to combat fascism, not expecting to fight communists too.

This is an era when a factory worker from St. Petersburg, Russia, can become an American millionaire, and his gorgeous socialite daughter can marry almost anyone she wants. Follett gives them space to grow, and through their experiences creates some very gratifying moments. Following wartime turmoil, the former Daisy Peshkov awakens from her rich, empty existence to establish a meaningful life, and although her uncouth father, Lev, never achieves likeability, the best comeback lines belong to him.

"The world of international politics and diplomacy was quite small," Lloyd Williams thinks at one point. This happens to be true. As he and other ordinary citizens turn into movers and shakers, their many coincidental meetings begin to make more sense. This mammoth saga is all about connections, and Follett also explains with clarity the links among the political and social movements during this darkest
of times.

Winter of the World includes nearly every type of Second World War story, drawing together scenes of country house drama, suspenseful front-line action, Soviet espionage, daring resistance, generational conflict and even interracial romance. Most impressively, rather than a patchwork of disparate segments, Follett has produced another seamlessly woven and enjoyably readable work, one which honours the individual acts of bravery that shifted history’s course.

Ken Follett's Winter of the World was published by Dutton in September at $36, or $38 in Canada (hb, 940pp).  In the UK, the publisher is Macmillan (£20, hb). This review originally appeared in Canada's Globe and Mail on Saturday, October 13th.

15 comments:

  1. I've picked up Follett and put it back again mainly because of the size of the book. Very difficult to read whilst in bed or while travelling which is where most of my reading gets done. Time I got to this author. Thank you for the review.

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    1. The book really is too large to read comfortably, especially when in bed or lying on the couch (my usual reading spot). If I hadn't been reading it for review, Kindle would have been the format I went with. My wrists did get tired!

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  2. I've read it already, got hold of an ARC copy a few months ago. It IS heavy but soo worth it. I enjoyed it more than the first book, which was a bit heavy on military descriptions for me now and then. A fantastic author!!

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    1. True - there was a lot of front-line action in Fall of Giants. Military novels aren't my thing, I often find the tactical descriptions hard to follow, but I found them comprehensible and interesting there even though it wasn't my favorite part of the book.

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  3. Great review. I love Follett. My all time favorite novel is Pillars of the Earth, which I’ve read and reread, (though I disliked the disappointing TV series that was made from it).
    I haven’t begun his new series yet, but next book for me: Fall of Giants.

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    1. I enjoyed Pillars but only made it through the first episode of the miniseries. I agree it was disappointing. I DVRed it, hoping to see it in its entirety, but it just didn't hold my attention.

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  4. Ken Follett is my literary boyfriend ;) I just love his stuff so much that it's ridiculous, lol. I haven't gotten my hands on a copy of this yet. I'm waiting for winter to hit hard so I can cuddle up with it.

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    1. It's a good one for that! It took me over a week to read.

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  5. Anonymous11:54 AM

    I love this sentence - it really sums up Follett's appeal (or lack thereof to some):
    Follett’s no-nonsense style can lack subtlety at times, but he more than makes up for it with his firm grasp of history and ability to juggle multiple story strands, each as attention-grabbing as the last.

    Sarah Other Librarian

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    1. I'm glad you liked it because I struggled with that sentence! I was trying to decide how much my opinion of the awkward opening scene affected my impression of the book as a whole. Fortunately, the remainder of the book more than made up for it -- but it was rough going for a while.

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  6. I still haven't made it thru Fall of Giants!! Great review.

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    1. It is quite the doorstopper! (and thanks!)

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  7. I still have yet to read anything by Ken Follett!

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  8. This is the year I write about too, and there's something so intense about the 30's--as your review implies, so many small battles being fought under the surface, under the radar, as slowly the big battle grows closer.

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  9. Hi there, there is a collection of book links happening right now at Carole's Chatter. This time we are collecting links to posts about your favourite historical fiction. Here is the link Your Favourite Historical Fiction Please do pop by and link in – maybe this one? Have a lovely day.

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